Retaining Our Current Lifestyles: A Conversation with Prof. Franz-Josef Brüggemeier

On August 18, I met with Prof. Dr. Dr. Franz-Josef Brüggemeier, Professor of Economic, Social, and Environmental History at the University of Freiburg. Prof. Brüggemeier studies environmental history, the history of sports, and the history of medicine. I went into his office hoping to better understand how the historical environmental movement has influenced the modern one in Germany.

During our conversation, Prof. Brüggemeier said that the connection between the historical and modern environmental movements is very complicated. While the historical environmental movement was conservative and focused on lifestyle change, the Energiewende is leftist and focuses on keeping our current lifestyle. Of course, there’s a fascinating history behind that simple statement.

According to Prof. Brüggemeier, we can say that the historical environmental movement began around 1900, although the term “ecology” wasn’t explicitly used back then. During that time, all industrialized nations were grappling with different governance structures. Some nations favored a highly industrialized version of socialism, to eradicate class conflicts. Those against socialism looked to combine elements of their histories with modern times, and preserving history involved retaining natural landscapes such as the characteristic “German countryside.” Many participants of this movement were working for the state as civil servants, and there was a large element of Heimatschutz (loosely translated, “home protection”).

I had read a portion of Prof. Brüggemeier’s book “How Green Were the Nazis?”, so I asked explicitly whether Nazi-era environmentalism had any effect on modern environmentalism. According to Prof. Brüggemeier, it’s difficult to say. It’s difficult to grapple with Nazi ideology because it had two particularly “Nazi” elements — racism and anti-Semitism — but the rest of the ideology was mainstream right-wing conservatism. In the 1920s and 1930s, such conservatives were highly critical of urban-industrial life. However, after winning the war, Himmler in particular wanted to go back to nature and the “real” agricultural Germany. These “nature” values became so associated with the Nazis that they were basically considered a “no-go” zone in the 1950s. Eventually, some of these non-Nazi conservative elements started to make their way back into the mainstream.

The next few decades comprised movements focused on lifestyle and societal change. The 1960s brought the liberal student movement, which was heavily politicized and against big institutions. The 1960s also brought the “hippie” movement, which emphasized a shift back to a “simpler life” and was distrustful of technology. The Green Party movement started in the late 1970s as a loose collection of people with environmental concerns, and when it became clear that the party’s members had different political backgrounds and outlooks, the party split. Conservative elements were slowly driven out from the Green Party in the 1980s, and the new Green Party became liberal and progressive.

Today’s environmental movement, according to Prof. Brüggemeier, has two major elements. The first is that it’s been anti-nuclear since day one — even before the Chernobyl accident in 1986. He surmised this mentality might have its origins in the 1960s student movement. Although the 1960s movement wasn’t explicitly environmental, it was against large industries like the nuclear industry, which might have transferred over to the modern environmental movement. Second, despite being anti-state, today’s movement has cooperated closely with the state. For instance, key players such as Fraunhofer work on public projects, and the Energiewende is heavily state-subsidized. Therefore, one can say the Energiewende is partly borne from the grassroots anti-nuclear movement, but has also been very top-down.

Prof. Brüggemeier also, as pointed out before, contrasted the Energiewende with earlier movements in that it focuses on keeping our current lifestyle while replacing conventional energy with renewables. It’s generally accepted that we’ll continue to live in our current societies with cities and technological equipment, and in fact, the technology of the Energiewende is extremely sophisticated. Prof. Brüggemeier commented that the future vision of a huge Smart Meter network that controls your washing machines and dishwashers and uses one million electric cars as storage seems as if it’s from a sci-fi world.

I pointed out that energy cooperatives such as EWS Schönau do argue for elements of a “simpler life” — energy conservation, for example. However, Prof. Brüggemeier said — at the risk of sounding cynical — that these co-ops also exist because state subsidies allow them to make a profit. They may argue for elements of an alternative lifestyle, but that’s only one of the reasons why they came into being. Furthermore, the 1960s hippie movement was extremely skeptical of technology, whereas today’s energy co-ops definitely use advanced technology. Prof. Brüggemeier also opined that any arguments for an alternative lifestyle would likely not get the mass support they need. When there’s a promise that we’ll get green energy while continuing to live our lives, there’s no incentive to change our lifestyles. He noted that even though today’s Green Party may not say it explicitly, they would likely agree with this mindset. Technology has provided a lot of environmental savings.

In sum, unlike earlier “simpler life” environmental movements that opposed technology and classism, Germany’s modern Energiewende basically seeks to retain our current system. I personally wonder what the implications of this “system retention” are for environmentalism and related social issues, but that’s a longer reflection for another day.

(Note: The interviewee reviewed the above writeup before its publication.)

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