Car(e) free Sundays and ecological conscience: Green Germany

The third Sunday of June traditionally marks the “Mobile without a car” day in Germany – a tradition going back to the car-free Sundays of the Suez crisis in the 50s and the oil crisis in the 1970s, but also on an idea of the East-German churches, started in 1981. East and West German initiatives merged into a day of action to trigger ecological awareness.

The car-free Sundays have spread throughout Europe, showing how attitudes change in the developed world. Green ideas slowly, but surely go mainstream. Listening to climate scientists it is not a minute too early to focus on saving our planet – or rather: the humans and animals share on it. The latest European elections have seen a surge of Green parties, a welcome contrast to the rise of far-right movements.

In Germany, this is even more obvious: Current polls show the Green Party in the lead throughout the country, although far-right groups have worrying support in some parts of the nation. The Green Party, once a fringe movement developed from the resistance against nuclear power, merged with the East German citizen’s rights movement after the reunification and has been going stronger and stronger ever since. The party shows a trend towards political conservatism, though, and has abandoned many left wing ideals to get closer to the German middle class.

Ecological conscience vs personal comfort

“Bio” and “Öko” is fashionable in Germany. Turn vegan to save the planet and feel guilt-free while eating, follow a healthy diet, express clean thoughts when it comes to renewable energies, leave product packages in the supermarket, buy water-saving shower heads and don’t forget to recycle. Oh, and do not wash your car in the driveway, a “crime” that might cause your neighbour to call the police on you in the interest of clean groundwater.

Germany took early leadership in recycling, so vigorous that visitors arriving at German airports often found themselves baffled when looking for a trash bin. Throwing away a piece of rubbish turned into quite an experience, with bins being divided in three or more parts: Paper, plastic, bottles, etc. Today this is standard in most European countries, including the UK, but I very well remember the confused faces of foreign friends arriving in Germany back in the days.

Sorting waste is an institutionalised effort since the early 90s. Klaus Töpfer, Secretary of Environment, brought government, industry and consumers to the table to create a standardized system of recycling, the “Grüner Punkt” (Green Dot). It’s financed by those that actually produce the rubbish problem. Products featuring a green dot symbol can be recycled, at home or on the road. Sorting garbage quickly became everyday business in Germany households. With German efficiency, people soon started to wash yogurt pots in the dishwasher before throwing them away and sorted their glass bottles by colour before placing them into dedicated containers.

From my personal point of view, some of these activities always felt odd. As a student, I spent some holidays working in a waste sorting plant. This was before the introduction of the Green Dot. Back then the sorting of the incoming rubbish wasn’t left to the citizens, but happened mostly automated in the facility I was working in. It was no pleasant way to earn money and left me shocked about the sheer amount of garbage humans produce. But the technological possibilities of the sorting facility still make me wonder how necessary the sorting at home really is, and how much of it is merely a way to reduce a guilty conscience.

Not that this is a bad thing. Awareness is the first step for any change, and recent studies of the German Authority of Environment (Bundesumweltamt) show that the mindset has changed a lot for the better. There is no doubt within the German population that climate change is a serious threat and that environmental issues are at the forefront of important political issues right now.

(Translation: New measuring tool: How environmentally aware are we on a scale from 0-10) - From the study on environmental awareness 2018 by the German Authority of Environment (Bundesumweltamt)

But the study also shows that there is a chasm between awareness and willingness to become active within the own personal comfort zone. The car free Sundays, mentioned at the beginning of this article, make a good example: Individual mobility by car is still highly important for Germans. The German motorways have no speed limit, and every attempt to introduce one to reduce emissions or accidents is met with utmost hostility.

German car manufacturers are famous for their powerful luxury cars. The one big corporation that made the ecological footprint of their products a priority was convicted of fraudulently manipulating emission tests. Volkswagen has since lost its reputation as eco-friendly and is still under fire.

No car free Sunday will change this attitude anytime soon. No ecological argument will top the need for economic growth.

But what about the reputation?

Chancellor Angela Merkel just recently visited the US and was celebrated in Harvard (and by presidential candidate Bernie Sanders) as the “climate leader” of global politics. She was lauded for ending the use of nuclear power and coal in Germany and making the country a leader in renewable energies.

A reality check shows that most of these achievements happened under pressure, not by initiative of Angela Merkel’s government. The conservative leadership in Germany usually puts the interests of industry and business first, creating feel-good trends for the middle class who can afford it, but making things difficult for poorer people who struggle with rising energy costs or can’t easily pay higher prices for groceries. The exit from nuclear power came after the Fukushima catastrophe, and ending the usage of coal is a step-by-step process over decades and very likely too little too late, riddled with exceptions and loopholes.

When it comes to renewable energy, German global leadership is a sham. Austerity measures have reduced support for solar and wind energy so much that China took over the technological pole position.

Nevertheless: The ecological future of our planet clearly becomes a matter of survival for mankind, even if this might sound over the top. The growing awareness of this fact might just be the antidote to the wave of nationalism and xenophobia we currently experience. Ecological renewal will have to be a global effort. Let’s hope the best – for Germany and every other part of our planet.

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