Maja gopel in an interview: bans can liberate people

Climate policy expert Maja Gopel on the idea that digitization makes the world sustainable.

Maja Gopel in Berlin’s government district in summer 2019 Image: Anja Weber

taz FUTURZWEI: What are the most important lies of digitalization and climate policy, Maja Gopel?

Woman: Expert on sustainability policy and Secretary General of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU). Member of the Club of Rome. Involved with Scientists for Future. Born in 1976, professor at Leuphana University in Luneburg. Lives near Berlin.

The work: Has worked on sustainable development for over two decades, sometimes academically, sometimes politically. Her book The Great Mindshift was published by Springer in 2016.

Maja Gopel: Security of supply of energy, of food, of everything remains implicitly a growing variable. This must not be jeopardized, no matter what level it is currently at. No one takes the trouble to explain: What is security of supply, anyway? When is enough enough? That is the self-image of the affluent society that has never been expressed.

The increase is taken for granted?

It is even considered necessary because the rest of the world has not yet reached this supposedly necessary level of supply that we are at now.

What are you getting at?

This thinking about growth here, everywhere and in every population group, is based on the fact that it is not considered politically feasible or even conceivable for someone to give back something of what he or she already has. For me, this is the biggest lie in the entire sustainability debate, the sacred cow that is also found in international declarations: Everyone has to get more and more – and the poorer people have to get it relatively faster. It is never questioned how people actually feel securely provided for. But the feeling of insecurity is always fuelled by a rhetoric of "it would then be worse than it is today".

But when you call that the biggest lie, does that again apply only to others, the outside world, or also to the sustainability industry, to which your employer WBGU belongs?

I find it noticeable in the discourse that hardly anyone dares to do this, because it is then immediately denounced again as an eco-dictatorship or eco-stasi, like the post-growth advocate Niko Paech was recently by Bild.


Yes, but the reaction of a politician from a mainstream party was even more impressive. He had just bought an SUV, a diesel, as a second car and had flown through the area at least thirty times this year. And he’s going to keep it up and give those eco-irrelevant Stasi people the big, fat middle finger. Live your freedom, post your Maserati photos on Insta where you ball over the Maldives, live your freedom, he shouted.

How does it come to such an aggressive reaction formation? Why are cars getting bigger and looking more aggressive? Objectively, far too little has happened climate-wise in the last twenty years and they want even less to happen. That’s almost funny, isn’t it?

Well, funny? On the one hand, there’s always this argument of economics and supposed liberal freedom, that this is what people want. Keynes had predicted a fifteen-hour week by 2030, because machines would then provide enough material security and we would then prefer to spend our time on art, culture, education and family. And then came analyses by various economists as to why Keynes was so wrong. The main explanation was: because he underestimated human greed. But for me, individual love of liberty is over when information about the massive collateral damage brings up the extended middle finger.


The way of life and society of patriarchally structured industrialization, which was indeed subject to a great transformation in the end, rears up one last time – build bigger and bigger, more horsepower, stronger tanks, my country and life first, overcome every limitation. This rollback has several facets: with Trump, Bolsonaro, but also some European figures, women are supposed to fulfill more of their "natural" role again, take care of children, look super, but in no way think they can have a big say here now, which is necessary in this society.

If you saw the Woodstock films from 1969 this summer, it was a questioning. A little bit very sweet with Love, Peace and Happiness, but the opposite of this penis increase logic, which then breaks through in every waste. So why and when has there actually been such a rollback?

Being "For Future" means questioning what we call normality.

From my point of view, the financial sector and the digital corporations that are moving away have really strengthened the logic of increase and this master-of-the-universe culture.

A high performer is sacrosanct because he or she is a cash cow and cash can come in large sums very quickly, stimulating effort but also ruthlessness. Success then often means so much power and admiration that decency sometimes goes overboard. Yet we had wanted to learn from the stories of corporate boards. So the question is: Why are we building new systems where this middle finger behavior can break through? Stock orientation, investor orientation, growth orientation, world market orientation – money, money, money: the totally one-sided orientation to a purely commercial pact. That used to be thought of differently.

We are always good at analyzing. But how do we stop the whole thing and turn it in a different direction?

I’ve arrived at a triad. On the one hand, sustainability research has managed to get people to realize that there are limits to growth, to the planet and to resources: There are limits to growth, to the planet and to resources. This leads to the question: Do we have enough? The fact that geopolitics is being reshaped, i.e., which country has access to which resources, plays a role here. The next question is: Will we share enough? This is where the belief in a purely individualistic culture is fatal, this "everyone is only responsible for themselves and everyone is selfish, everyone is greedy and that is why we have created markets everywhere, because that is the only instrument that can contain this a little bit. Because of that, we now have a huge challenge to work on a solution that says, "Yes, we’re going to share enough, there’s going to be enough for everybody." Because the third question is, who is "we" anyway?

Who is we?

The question is: What are sensible scales with which we can try to build alternatives? Now many are saying: It is naive to count on Europe at the moment. But what else? I don’t see any other entity that can achieve anything globally. And not as a European fortress, but in cooperation with other parts of the world that believe sustainable societies are possible. And very important: to strengthen at the same time the regional or the local level, because I think that the category of self-efficacy is very central for people. This feeling of: I can shape, I have influence on taking my life into my own hands and I can also rely on the fact that the people who live next to me are not so self-absorbed at all, but that we can also do things together.

What are the chances of seeing such a cultural change in your lifetime?

Now that’s oracular, isn’t it?


I think there’s a window at the moment to think about deeper questions: "What’s it all about? What makes for a good and meaningful life? Why do we do what we do every day?" This is new and came about through these many demonstrations and the clear demands of the young people of Fridays for Future in particular.

How can it actually be that the ecos have been describing the problem since 1972 with the Club of Rome and now a few young women come and only now it seems to be taken seriously?

This article comes from taz FUTURZWEI N°10

Well, there was a first wave of taking it seriously back then. That’s why we have an environmental ministry. Today, it has a lot to do with the fact that we previously relegated sustainability issues to the green eco-camp and the weak environment ministry. The generational issue is breaking this up and bringing connectivity to all camps. And it provides an additional dimension of concern. True, we have long analyzed that we do what we do because future generations have no voice and thus long-term consequences are neglected. But now the future generations are in the streets chanting: With these projections, we must act now. All of them. That has a different kind of bang.

How can this become politics?

If, at the same time, we see a radicalization on the right, it’s time for political magnanimity: Where can everyone jump a little over their competitive shadows across political camps? I had an impressive discussion with European parliamentarians, where someone from Hungary said: Red, green, yellow, black, whatever you call yourselves, see to it that you get together to such an extent that you don’t let the populists come to power, because that will happen in no time at all: people will be defamed, rights will be abolished and democratic institutions that could protect them will be eliminated. So see to it that you don’t get so caught up in the nitty-gritty and go for the protest voters. I feel the same way about the climate and sustainability issue: this is about preserving our stable livelihoods.

Your employer, WBGU, is working on a report entitled "Digitization and Sustainability." In reality, digitization is a dynamo of increase and consumption and anything but sustainable. What are your solutions?

It is truly amazing how little these two things are even thought of together. The progress agenda and the innovation race into the future are being driven forward largely without feedback from ecological and social goals. The goalposts continue to be the old understanding of productivity, the old understanding of growth, and the model of social protection of jobs is flying up in our face because we now have labor available on a global scale via platforms.

You coined the slogan for the newly founded "Council for Digital Ecology": Grounding digitization. What does that mean?

One thing: Digitization has a clear material basis that is inescapably related to our ecosystem. That’s why we can’t just talk about future technology and people; we have to add environment. Anything else won’t give us a future.

The other?

Take out the hype, ask what is really emerging, and have the courage to get involved in the discussion. I see that it’s like the financial sector: announce it as gigantomaniacally as possible, formulate it cryptically, and never question it. And if you come out and say you don’t get it, you’re yesterday’s news. Angela Merkel was laughed at for saying that the Internet was new territory. Which is an indictment of those who laughed because they didn’t realize that Merkel was pretty much describing what the case is. If we stop asking questions because we’re afraid of looking like fools, others will have hegemonic power. That has rarely served the common good.

The sustainability issue is discussed in a depoliticized way, as is the digitization issue. How can they be politicized?

A political economy reading: This is not a force of nature, it can be shaped and it is being shaped. But what is absent at the moment: In which direction is it being shaped and why? That always falls by the wayside. For some reason, more digital is good per se. That has to be broken up. Some benefit more, others less, some digitize, others are digitized. This must be understood and made comprehensible as a social and political process. It must be questioned whether such a concentration of power is expedient for the infrastructure of the future. When it comes to infrastructures, there is a responsibility for services of general interest, and the public sector is typically involved.

It is astonishing how little digitization and ecological goals are thought of together.

But not here.

No. This has been completely taken over by the corporations, which, with the current overcapitalization, are shaping the future at breakneck speed, creating property and thus also exercising control.

The energy consumption of digitization is also not discussed.

Only in niches. Energy does not yet come entirely from renewable sources, and we need hardware and thus rare earths to harvest it. The paperless office has proven to be an illusion. Now we are talking about "dematerialization" through digitalization. That’s nonsense, even if the data are all floating along so invisibly.

If we’re moving closer to reality when it comes to global warming, are we moving further away when it comes to digitization because the energetic requirements are not being realized at all?

In Japan, they have a great term that outlines the extent to which these digitization processes are changing societies. Their term is "digital curtain". This digital curtain is interposed in a mediating form between many relationships and perceptions, and this influences human-human interaction, but also human-nature relationships.

Our issue is called The Reality, after all. The thesis is that via Fridays for Future, parts of society are coming closer to reality about the need for socio-ecological transformation, but the reality of digitalization is being sidelined, like ecology before the Club of Rome.

True. These "for Future" movements represent what really encourages me right now. And it’s no longer just the schoolgirls. But also gray-haired people from a wide variety of professions who, with "for Future," are questioning what kind of politics we have and also demanding a radical break from the status quo. For me, that was a real break, because we typically always pit one sector against the other, for example, business against ecology. And now we’re going right across the paradigm level.

What do you see as the breakthrough?

Those who say: we are "for Future" realize that we have to question what we have established as normality, i.e. show that this worked in "the Past" but is no longer sustainable.

The problem with all these "for Future" statements is that everyone latches on to what’s trending, but no one moves their own ass. They all stay in the same mode.

Yeah, well, that’s the challenge. With Entrepreneurs for Future, you can say is still a small fraction of our economy, many are social entrepreneurs. But this is also accompanied by demands for other legal forms so that we can operate on a sufficiently large scale for the common good. We need a different form of startup funding so that it is not just venture capital that goes in there and forces us to increase profits in the short term, which in turn makes the externalization of environmental and social issues very profitable. We therefore need a different funding structure for startups. Here we find demands that question the structural framework under which the "for future" economy could become possible at all.

Okay, the example makes sense. But in Scientists for Future, there doesn’t seem to be any reflexive dimension at all, that is, that people question their own practice and don’t just "show solidarity with the kids." In the sense of reality, it is about changing one’s own practice for all social groups and for all individuals.

So some prohibitions would liberate many people.

Hm. I found that interesting with the distinction that is made between Fridays for Future, which is very much discursive and demonstrative, and then Extinction Rebellion, which says we need civil disobedience because we need to bring a disruption to the flow of operations that, for all its environmentally destructive effects, is still protected as desirable normality. So disruption by blocking mobility flows or clearly telling the marketing bosses that they are the storytellers behind overconsumption.

What would be your definitions for an appropriate form of radicalism that actually confronts political and physical reality in a constructive sense of a democratic new majority formation?

A definition in the scientific sense is garbage here. Environmental changes arise from the sum of individual actions. The tyranny of small steps. In earlier revolutions, the feedback loop was much more direct: I stand up against oppression, injustice, violence done to me or people I know. That’s the problem with the current protest against the environmental crisis: the consequences are still a bit more in the future or somewhere else. In criminal law, we have tried to bring crimes against future generations into the international criminal court and thus make the destruction of the environment legally manageable. Our individualized criminal law has failed here because it is often impossible to map the causality between the individual activity of individuals and major environmental damage. This is exactly the problem we have in our everyday lives. I go shopping by car because it’s a big purchase. That’s not a problem. But when everyone drives gas-guzzling cars everywhere every day and for every distance, it becomes one. Is that why it’s hard to call for a radically different lifestyle? I can’t achieve the One Planet Footprint at all under the current conditions.


But that means my everyday practice is built into a structure that pushes me toward the destroyer side. I think a lot of bans would simply liberate a lot of people right now. To get rid of that guilty conscience at the checkout when I know I don’t always have to scan everything first with my smartphone to see if the product is the very worst. Or knowing that it’s not just me cutting back, but that everyone is doing it. In many surveys, that’s exactly the point: Why should I do this and the others don’t do it in case of doubt and thus have even more Planet at their disposal?

FDP leader Lindner will be delighted if you declare bans to be liberating.

I think it’s absolutely important to agree on sensible rules for production and consumption, free of ideology. When it comes to the tax system, we’re not talking about setting a few incentives so that people might pay taxes voluntarily. Societies are always structured with rules. And every rule has exactly these two effects: It is never simply a one-sided ban, but it is always also a decision for something else. I think it’s good if we refrain from destroying ecosystems, and we can always live well in the process. It has become all too obvious that this ban rhetoric is almost always only invoked when it comes to questions of consumption. When it comes to other things, the ban question is quickly in the air – for example, banning demonstrations during school hours.

Interview: Peter Unfried and Harald Welzer