Five Casual Conversations from Germany

During my travels, I’ve enjoyed meeting many different people with diverse viewpoints and opinions. I’ve learned a lot from casual conversations. Here are five conversations I had in Germany and my thoughts about them.

Money and Education

Timo once mentioned that doctors in Germany aren’t paid nearly as much as doctors in the US — and that he’s completely okay with it. For one, all higher education is free in Germany, which means that medical students don’t have large debts when they graduate. Secondly, he isn’t studying to be a doctor because he wants to be rich; he’s doing it because he wants to be a doctor.

Another day, Timo told me about Germany’s tracked education system. German schoolchildren are split into three educational tracks starting in fifth grade, with the different tracks leading towards either university or vocational training. In theory, children in lower tracks can take a slightly longer path through school if they want to attend university, but in practice, university-tracked folks attend university while generally others do not. Timo mentioned there’s been some valid controversy about the track system, including the fact that it’s hard to move between tracks (side note: you can read about it here). However, a positive side effect is that (in his experience) people are not viewed as “better” or “worse” for having had different levels of education. Different levels of education simply prepare you for different types of careers.

My thoughts: Through these and other conversations, I noticed that Germans (who grew up under German socialism) and Americans (who grew up under American capitalism) view the concepts of status and entitlement very differently. Americans ascribe to the American Dream: If you work hard, then you’ll be rewarded and move up the ranks. The ugly flip side is that those at the bottom are often viewed as being there through some fault of their own. Germans don’t have “ranks” in the same way. Nobody “deserves” more just because they studied longer or worked a “higher-skilled” job; instead, everyone deserves some basics, by virtue of being a human being. Of course, this analysis is a gross oversimplification on my part. Racism and xenophobia definitely exist in Germany and Europe, and in fact get swept under the rug more often because populations are more homogenous (and foreigners are expected to “assimilate” more) than in the US. That being said, I got the sense that Germans think more about the general standard of living than Americans, who are more likely to think about their own.


Side Effects of Renewables

During our night out with Alternative Berlin, Luisa talked to a European tourist who was extremely unhappy about the renewable energy hype. He said that solar panels and wind turbines are not impact-free — for instance, there are environmental consequences when you dispose of solar photovoltaic panels — but that nobody thinks about this fact.

My thoughts: On one hand, I felt this tourist was overly cynical. Nothing in this world is truly “impact free,” and renewables are definitely better than conventional energy sources. On the other hand, this tourist was spot on. Europeans talk a lot about building up renewable energy capacity, but much less about energy efficiency. In addition, when I asked interviewees about different grid-balancing techniques — batteries vs. demand-side management — they often compared costs but rarely mentioned batteries’ natural resource and environmental impacts. Cognitively, European environmentalists do know the importance of reducing usage — but they don’t yet know it viscerally.


Who Needs to Act on Climate Change?

During the same night out, I talked at length with a person named Veele (originally from Finland and now living in Berlin) about renewable energy and climate change. He felt that both of these issues are important, but that no matter what Europe and the US do, we’re doomed if Asia’s big players don’t do something as well. He also worried about whether or not it’s too late to escape major climate change effects. Finally, he was extremely excited that the US Navy recently announced its intention to generate 50% of its energy from non-conventional sources (including biofuels) by 2020. He felt that this declaration would set an excellent example for the rest of the world and spur incentives for biofuels.

My thoughts: Through this and other conversations, I realized that the average German resident knows and cares a lot more about renewables and climate change than the average American. I didn’t actually know about the US Navy’s announcement — but this random European did!


German Sustainability and Insights from Fashion

I was waiting for the train in Berlin one evening when a German named Raphael and I noticed that someone had left their phone at the station. After working together to return the phone to its owner, we started chatting.

When I told Raphael about my Watson project, he told me his thoughts on renewables. He’s originally from a rural area, where solar energy was huge because of the EEG. However, he feels that the German government’s recent laws have slowed down renewable energy development. He posited that the German government felt they’d done “enough” good already and didn’t feel the need to keep pushing.

I asked Raphael if Germans our age cared about sustainability, and he said yes. Though it may not be politically correct to say this (his words), more educated people tend to care more. He also talked about a friend who uses a ride-sharing app and tries to pick electric cars on the app when he can. However, as Raphael mentioned, one electric car won’t make a huge difference. Furthermore, electric cars have been around for 50 years — so why haven’t we deployed them more widely?

When I told Raphael I was going to India, he said he was interested in how my explorations there would look because India is a “challenging land” with many different cultures. (Side note: I was really impressed that he knew that.) He worried that if Germany slows down its technological innovation, then India may not have access to low-cost renewable technologies. Conversely, though, he felt that perhaps Germany’s lagging would present a greater opportunity for India to lead technologically.

I then asked Raphael what he did, and he said he was a fashion design student. He used to study art history, but he liked that fashion — unlike art — travels with you. He was a bit lukewarm about fashion design too, though. In a way, he said, fashion inequality is even worse than energy inequality. Cheap clothing is ubiquitous and you can buy a lot of it, and then his fashion design friends sit around and design crazy stuff that nobody wants. On the other hand, Raphael felt that fashion allows you to make a tangible impact immediately, for instance by sustainably sourcing your cotton and labor. He showed me as examples that his shoes were made locally in Germany with good labor practices and that his jacket had a “Green Card” label.

Raphael also told me about a fashion designer who makes clothing by hand from scratch, starting with the thread. She makes a video documenting the making of each clothing article and sells it along with the clothing. The idea, Raphael said, is that people should care about their clothing rather than than having tons and tons of cheap clothing that they just throw away. Obviously not everyone can afford to buy this designer’s clothing, Raphael pointed out, but sometimes you need to do something drastic or over-the-top to demonstrate the need for a particular type of change.

My thoughts: I learned a lot from this conversation, and thought the last sentiment about over-the-top demonstrations was particularly beautiful. Technical environmental solutions often measure, infer, and predict, but less frequently do they change hearts, minds, and attitudes in the way an over-the-top demonstration can. Clearly, we need to talk to more artists.


Italian Promises and Project Execution

One evening over dinner, I asked Luisa about the Smart Meter rollout in Italy (her home country). In the process, we ended up talking about Italian corruption. Italy has one main utility, Enel, that basically owns 80 percent of the transmission operators, distribution operators, and energy generators. In other words, despite the liberalized European energy market, Enel has a de facto monopoly in Italy. On the European level, Enel is viewed as “cool” and forward-thinking because it makes a lot of promises. However, Italian companies are extremely clever about executing promises poorly on purpose. It would be common for a company like Enel to hold a tender for a large project and then just give the tender to the company that pays the highest bribe. The company then might do a bad job or not finish the project. It’s common in Italy to just drop a project about 10 years after it’s started, and thus there are many unfinished projects. Similarly, Luisa said it wouldn’t surprise her if some of Italy’s cheaper Smart Meters didn’t actually follow European standards.

My thoughts: Italy is part of “developed” Europe. However, Italy is in some ways a lot like “developing” India, and EU-level policy doesn’t necessarily recognize this fact. Some of the lessons Germans learn from German-India exchanges like this one may be applicable closer to home than they think.


P.S. Today is Thanksgiving in the US, and I have so much to be thankful for. I have a home, safety, family, and friends, while there are people around the world fighting for their rights to the same. This Thanksgiving, please give thanks by giving back. (For an easy way to give back, by donating a portion of the cost of your Thanksgiving dinner to Syrian refugees, check out the Thanksgiving for Syria web app. Read about it here.)


This Thanksgiving, give thanks by giving back through the Thanksgiving for Syria initiative. (Image from the linked website.)


One thought on “Five Casual Conversations from Germany

  1. Pingback: Watson Fellowship Conference | Priya's Watson Fellowship

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s