When the Zeitgeist is Wrong

Byline: | Category: Culture, Environment, Regulations | Posted at: Thursday, 10 May 2012

“We buy organic food, put E10 in our gas tanks and switch to green electricity. Our roofs are covered in solar panels and our walls plastered with insulation. This makes us feel good about ourselves. The only question is: What exactly does the environment get out of all this?”

Der Spiegels’ Alexander Neubacher says:  not much at all. 

I have a more than 20-year history with Germany dating to about 1988, back when toxic chemicals in Germany meant nerve gas or sarin.  From my perspective as a sometime resident of Deutschland for about six of those twenty years, there has been a real evolution (apparently the word of the week) of thought about the environment there. 

Twenty years ago consumers sent everything out to the recycling bins.  They still do.  Twenty years ago some of the things they brought to their recycling centers just accumulated; it wasn’t economically feasible to recycle things like plastics.  Twenty years later they no longer accumulate, but it still isn’t feasible:

My yoghurt container, which I’ve carefully rinsed and sorted, isn’t recycled at all. In fact, it’s dumped into an incinerator with all the rest of the garbage and burned.

Yes, this is allowed. By law, the dual system is required to recycle exactly 36 percent of plastic waste. Waste disposal companies can do what they want — and what is most cost-effective for them — with the remaining 64 percent. As a result, much of it ends up in waste incinerators for what’s called “thermal recycling,” bringing the cycle to a sudden end. 

The economics there aren’t any different than they are here:  except for aluminum, glass, and paper, recycling most waste materials doesn’t make sense.  When I was in Germany, I did what I was supposed to do.  In America I do what makes sense; we have three recycle bins in our pantry for only those materials.

Water is another interesting environmental bugaboo for Germans.  I’ve lived in places where water is in short supply and comes therefore with a high cost:  Texas, the Mojave Desert, Kuwait, Iraq.  There you learn how to conserve water.  Thirty-second showers are necessary when you live in the driest deserts.  Germany is not that kind of place.  Water is abundant; so it surprises me that so many Germans strive to save H2O.  You’re not even allowed to wash your own car.  In a land blessed with frequent rain throughout the year, saving water makes as much sense as eating your vegetables in Kansas because there are starving children in Africa.  It’s a national non sequitur.

Speaking of rain . . . because it rains so often, and because it is so far north, I was surprised to find so many solar panels when I returned to Germany in 2010 after a 15-year absence.  Frankfurt is further north than Winnipeg.  It’s not exactly Phoenix, and even there–in the desert southwest with more than 300 sun-filled days a year, solar still isn’t economical.  Plus, houses covered in dysfunctional black panels happen to be ugly as sin, which is quite the shame in a land whose villages were formerly celebrated for houses festooned with red tile roofs.  Visual pollution is on the rise, unfortunately not counterbalanced by much solar power.

My latest time in Germany made me think that environmentalism there is less about saving the planet than it is about making Germans feel good about themselves.  Apparently I’m not alone in that thought.  So let me leave the last word to Herr Neubacher:

It would be nice if we would occasionally subject our certainties to a reality check. . . No one should be forced to bring toxic mercury-containing light bulbs into the house. It doesn’t make sense to shut down more nuclear power plants if it just makes us dependent on imported nuclear electricity from France. And as long as a disposal paper bag is worse for the environment than a plastic bag, the green morals police should think about whether it’s the plastic bag that they should be banning.

People who shop in organic grocery stores, eat a vegan diet or drive an electric car are free to do so. But this should not give them the right to lecture others on the environmentally correct way to live their lives. Things are sometimes more complicated than they seem at first glance.

(ht: Ed at Insty’s Place and Kate)

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