Discussion paper: sustainability and
The debate about sustainability is not an emancipatory debate of the political left,
because it is a debate which is at present devoid of social content.
Although discussion papers about sustainability (such as 'Germany - ready to face the
future'  ) describe models for future action, they do not give a political and
environmental framework: no political means is described by which to move those models
towards their practical realisation. There have been some triggers for a new public debate
about the meaning and aim of economic processes. For example, it has been successfully
shown that the industrialised countries, due to their reproductive model of economics,
find themselves in a cul-de-sac. But nearly all studies, including the final report of the
commission of enquiry on 'The protection of human beings and the environment' by the 13th
German Bundestag , abstain from any analysis of UN sustainability. Whilst describing
the present situation in prose befitting a high drama, the report fails to make any
analysis whatsoever of the constellations of power, ownership or interest. The plundering
of nature and the exploitation of developing countries are simply sins of the system,
accepted as givens, not to be questioned. There's a general, renunciatory
shrug-of-shoulders: if only 'we' could be convinced of the contradictions of our actions,
'we' could change our behaviour. Thus the debate on sustainability is totally stripped of
its social content.
"Anyone at all who wants to participate in the sustainability debate can simply buy
an entrance ticket. Racism, sexism, capitalism and nationalism will no longer be
The term 'sustainability' has been adopted by the ruling classes with surprising
speed. The term is now even used against environmental and development organisations.
The defenders of 'efficiency revolutions', which aim to reduce global consumption of the
environment, blank out the fact that capitalism in a technical and technological sense has
been nothing but an ongoing efficiency revolution, through which the consumption of nature
has increased, not declined. Some environmental sectors need national regulation because
of the over-use of natural resources, especially natural sinks. Regulation can include
preservation orders on certain locations and the setting of thresholds. Of course, it's
not a new idea to suggest that such regulation would be in the long-term interests of not
only nature and people but also capital investment.
Forestry and agriculture proclaim, in furious attacks on environmental organisations, that
they do practise sustainable economics because they live off nature. The "We've
embraced the issue" stance of Opel (Vauxhall), a company which takes advantage of the
sustainability debate, is limited to their reduction of resources used per car, not
acknowledging that the total consumption of material in the overall fleet production is
Many environmental organisations co-operate with business, because without business
nothing can succeed. Sustainability is sustainable economics. This act of co-operation
distracts us from the causes of the global crisis and from its profiteers. The real
conflicts of interest are hidden.
The government's sustainability policy is carried out on the back of low-income
families. Women are the main sufferers. The example of the eco-tax demonstrates how the
Buendis 90 (the east and west German alliance of Greens) themselves understand
sustainability. The increase in fuel and energy tax, which is surely ecologically
desirable, doesn't include any safety-net for low-income families. The simultaneous
lowering of labour costs was meant, according to the Red-Green Alliance, to create more
jobs. Yet those with the highest incomes (defined by their high social security
contributions) are those who are the least burdened, whilst families with low incomes do
not profit from the reduction of social security contributions; nor do pensioners, the
unemployed, or people on other benefits.
The main winners are the companies - by billions, in fact. The reduction of what they have
to pay for their employees' social security results in money pouring into the big
companies' coffers - generally far more money than they have to pay in eco-tax: eco-tax
which exceeds 1000 DM per annum will be reimbursed by up to 96%.
On balance, families with several children and in the lower income-bracket have to carry
the heaviest burden. In such families it is mainly the woman who will have to compensate
The Red-Green Alliance's intention to encourage innovation, i.e. its promotion of new
technology for the 'efficiency revolution' (for example by encouraging high-risk capital
investment in the former, etc.), serves mainly the white middle-class German male. In the
current situation it is he who is most able to be flexible and submit his working life to
the dictates of the renewed acceleration of the processes of production. The segregation
of compulsory 'workaholics' on one side and, on the other women leaving employment for
ever, is manifesting itself. Also, women are forced into the low-income bracket. Because
of the patriarchal organisation of families and family politics, they can only take on
part-time employment and are unable to be flexible when confronted with fast-changing
requirements regarding location and working hours.
The 'efficiency revolution' in the industrialised countries destroys social structures in
the countries of the southern hemisphere.
Many production locations overseas provide raw materials to Germany, and semi-finished
products for German industry or for German consumption. All of these locations consume raw
materials, secondary materials and semi-finished product; all of them expel climate gasses
and other emissions and produce spoil heaps. Whilst this colonisation of environmental
space may well be discussed on a theoritical, scientific level, it hardly plays any
practical role in the formulation of politics - even environmental politics.
In fact, the clean high technology at these overseas production locations for the I.T.
sector uses far more resources than has been assumed. The amount of soil turned; the
number of forests cut down in developing countries to provide the rare resources needed to
miniaturise consumer and capital goods: these are not taken into account.
Social structures in the South are being broken up by the liberalisation of world trade,
and by the forced division of labour in the provision of cheap raw materials and an
extended workbench. And again it is the women who, forced into slum conditions, end up
feeding and clothing their family and keeping them warm.
The Left, however, should go on involving itself in the sustainability debate
because, following the debate through to its logical end, it does have profound social and
The sustainability debate is a reality. It wasn't launched by industry and the mainstream
but has been misused by them. In the face of the global crisis, the Left has to
acknowledge that this debate, despite the sharp criticism it has to face, is the only
publically recognised debate that relates the serious problems of nature and the poverty
of developing countries to the workings of economics.
The sea musn't be over-fished if we want to live off it in the long term. Coal and ore
shouldn't be extracted more quickly than renewable resources can replace them. Polluting
emissions shouldn't surpass the ability of the environment to regenerate itself. And
individual human beings, be they in Germany or in Kenya, should have an equal right to a
reasonable use of the environment. These basic rules of sustainable economics are
certainly not wrong. Consequential reflection on these rules makes us ask questions about
why they have constantly been broken. The debate also provides an arena for left-wing
emancipatory theories, as the social implications of the debate emerge.
In doing this the Left has to swim against the tide. It has to defend the claim to equal
opportunities, which is pushed into the background again and again. Instead of a debate
between "experts" they should be fighting for the involvement in the
decision-making process of the constituents to whom the issues relate. The Left has to
fight the trend whereby political change is no longer won by grassroots campaigning but by
representative politicians at glitzy media conferences. And the Left has to uncover the
patriarchal character of the marriage between sustainability and neo-liberalism.
 Zukunftfaehiges Deutschland by the
 13. Deutscher Bundestag, Enquete-Kommission 'Schutz des Menschen und der Umwelt'.