Our book of the month is The Green Lie by Kathrin Hartmann. Whether it’s electric cars, organic foods, biofuels or fair trade clothing, Hartmann argues that supposedly ‘sustainable’ solutions have nothing to do with climate protection or human rights, but only serve to enhance corporate profits. If we, as consumers, fall for fancy packing and labels, Hartmann believes we a doing nothing to help the environment or people in developing countries. So, what would really make a difference? Why are the great environmental and social problems of our age – including climate change – taking so long to fix?
Debating Europe’s Book Club is your chance to ask the authors your questions! Every month, we present a relevant book and collect your questions and comments, and then seek the author’s reaction.
Of course, it is easy for politicians and corporations to blame consumers for environmental harm and exploitation. But is that really fair? Particularly if all the “fair trade” and “eco-friendly” labelling confuses even government funding agencies? You sent us in your questions and comments on Kathrin Hartmann’s book, and we put them to her for her answers!
So, what do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from James, who put it like this:
If large numbers of people do something useless (like choosing to buy products falsely labelled ‘sustainable’) then it doesn’t make a meaningful difference. If anything, it may even be a net negative. If, however, legal restrictions are tightened (which cannot be done via consumer choice) then it can have a real impact.
Is he right? How would the author of The Green Lie, Kathrin Hartmann, respond to his argument that the best way to prevent catastrophic climate change is by states working together and introducing tougher rules and regulations?
I see three important places where new laws would really make a difference: agriculture, mobility, and rules for international companies.
European (and particularly German) agriculture is very export-oriented, which in turn leads to increased imports of raw materials for the food industry, telling beautiful ‘green lies’; if there were a higher degree of self-sufficiency in Europe and it was not a major source of grain production for the feeding troughs of livestock around the world, then it would make a huge difference. So we should try to be more self-sufficient.
The second would be mobility. A completely different mobility policy would be great, and it could take another ‘green lie’ out of the world. To prevent climate change, people must be discouraged from travelling individually. I do not mean they should use electric cars or fuel from palm oil, which in turn causes new climate problems in terms of things like biofuel. I mean: how do we create car-free inner cities? How do we create alternative transport systems? How do we make public transport affordable and accessible to all?
When I come to the companies, I believe that the call for a UN agreement that obliges international companies to prove that their supply chain is free of human rights violations and environmental destruction is right. Above all, companies must also be punished if that happens. That would also mean reducing the hurdles for those affected from the South to be able to sue against such companies. This would not change everything, but it would be a good start. Voluntarily rules for companies mean they only do what doesn’t hurt their profit margin, and unfortunately they do not help. New laws could make a difference.
We also had a comment sent in from Boris, who agrees with Kathrin Hartmann, though he suggests she doesn’t go far enough. Boris believes that the real ‘green lie’ is the notion that 7-8 billion people can be fed sustainably. He doesn’t believe it’s possible, not matter what we do? Is he right? Or is he being overly pessimistic?
No, that is – thank God – wrong! There are many studies that show we can easily feed up to 12 billion people. I always cringe when I hear that there are ‘too many people’. Who should decide on the right number? The problem is that much of our food crops end up in feed troughs and tanks. One-third of the ice-free area is used worldwide for meat production, but of course that is not sustainable! A very small part of the population lives on a huge ecological footprint.
The small farmers’ organisations in the countries of the South are all fighting for food sovereignty. The World Bank has initiated an agricultural report in which 500 scientists have worked to make it clear that our current agricultural model is doomed to failure. Farming is highly industrial with monocultures, with cash crops for biofuels and for the food industry, rather than with local people deciding what they want to grow and what they want to eat. I have been to the countries of the South a lot and whenever I have met small farmers who have been able to enforce their idea of agriculture and have decided in solidarity and democratically, people are doing much better than anywhere else.
There is a great deal of evidence showing how agro-ecological farming is possible and also yields much higher yields than conventional agriculture, which ruins land, uses pesticides and keeps farmers dependent on large corporations. There are many positive examples of how things can be done differently. The important question is not what the solution is – we have long since known that – but who is preventing the solution from being implemented? Why haven’t sustainable solutions prevailed against large corporations? That’s where action from the EU is in demand.
Finally, we had a comment from Daniel asking how we can bring about the dramatic lifestyle changes Kathrin Hartmann is advocating given that we’re all so used to our little creature comforts. What would Hartmann say in response?
Of course, you’ll never be able to get everyone in society to rethink their lifestyle, but the amazing thing is – and Daniel has identified this well – that it’s no longer a question of informing people. Most people know that things cannot go on like this. So, instead of individuals changing their way of life, I think it’s much more important if we as a society trusted in the power of the citizen.
People need to be confident that protest can make a difference. But you will only achieve that if you join the protest yourself. I want to encourage everyone to emancipate themselves and look around. Which demo is interesting? Which petition can I sign? Can I join an NGO or a party? We can’t have a strategy for getting everybody to change their lifestyle. That would be manipulative and dangerous. I hope that many people recognise their political power and thus create a social movement that wants to change something. This is effective and you do not need every single person to sign up. If you are against something, then you have to mobilise to defend against it.
Why haven’t we stopped climate change yet? Is it because shifting public opinion is too hard? Or because vested interests are blocking change? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!