A Plea for a New Performance Culture
Originally published in German with examples from German & European Economy: https://andersindset.com/de/das-denken/braucht-die-gespaltene-gesellschaft-einen-klimawandel/
Greta Thunberg and Luisa Neubauer won’t save the world. Yet, the outcry of the youth shows the urgency involved, and science points to the need for action. This is a model that has, indeed, led to some sensitization with respect to the climate crisis. But it also shows that fifty-two years after the first Earth Day, we’re rolling out our own changes far too slowly.
We find answers—or better problems—in the human ability to make progress through performance and effort. Infinite progress. Because we can do something, and we are obliged to. Scientists, entrepreneurs, and other action heroes who free themselves from old self-evident truths through inspiration and motivation and strive for better explanations and better problems will save the world. But to that end, a new narrative is needed. Not one of climate hysteria or full-on dystopia. Belief in a technological eco-utopia is the new way. We need more economy, more and faster technological development, and more human growth. In short, facing our crises productively becomes possible with the harmony of economy and ecology and with the liberation of human potential. We’re on the cusp of something big,
Humans aren’t made for shock and crisis. Resilience can be developed in dealing directly with psychological suffering and trained at the societal level, but the true potential of human beings is in creation: the liberation and unfolding of the human capacity for progress. The activation.
The world will continue to exist—along with a rainbow of flora or fauna. Yet, humankind could soon say goodbye upon reaching technological singularity. It is also conceivable that an external event such as a meteorite collision or nuclear catastrophe will lead to the extinction of mankind. However, these are unlikely scenarios—at least in the near future—so we may assume a scenario of human continuation.
THE PATH TO BETTER PROBLEMS
For decades, humanity has striven to find solutions to threats or crises that aren’t clearly defined or understood. Renunciation and reduction, efficient use of resources. Yes, these are approaches that can certainly contribute, at some level, to more equitable distribution and lead to a deceleration of climate collapse. But the environmental issue cannot be solved in an absolute state. And when physicists speak of entropy and thermodynamics, it often seems unclear whether such a thing as “sustainability” exists in our universe at all. With climate fights and eco-hysteria, an occidental ideology of renunciation is pursued. But is a regenerative-ascetic approach sufficient as an absolute answer to a turbo-capitalist society of hyper-consumption? Is it enough to do without (technological) advances? Can asceticism be the answer for the ten billion people that will soon crowd our planet?
We can learn lessons from history. But transferring approaches with historical reference to our technological world has as little relevance for organized human life and its existential challenges in the twenty-first century as meeting geopolitical conflicts with the demand for a full restart (shifting from absolute capitalism and the decentralization of all institutions). There exists no readily adaptable form of absolute socialism that could replace capitalism at present. And so, the simple path of renunciation doesn’t appear to be the answer.
Conversely, we also find arguments against technological progress and for a change in human sense-making. Why do we have to travel? Why do products have to be shipped? Why can’t we do without products altogether? Can’t we find value elsewhere? All justified. And yet, we can object here: Do we even need to question this? Aren’t the possibilities of human exchange and exploration more powerful? Can’t love and adventure alone lead to a meaningful, happy life? Isn’t it an open world, in which we can exchange and move freely across borders, that would prove the basis for understanding different global perspectives and creating synergies, which in turn could enable us to work collectively to avert eco-collapse through technology and progress among other things?
Are these not the very European values of which we are so proud and wish to export all over the world? Wasn’t it precisely “globalization” and dialogue that created a basis for wars no longer being the ultima ratio of conflict resolution? Aren’t isolated totalitarian regimes the biggest problem today (despite our best efforts to counter them with European values)? More travel, more dialogue, and perhaps more globalization. This seems to be the possible answer to China’s push for hegemony and the threat posed by nations such as Russia and North Korea. Enlightenment—at least from a European perspective—is a key to this process. It’s true that, as a society, we are currently experiencing an identity crisis in which people are looking for a sense of belonging and support. But this doesn’t mean that a better understanding of an interdependent world community is dispensable. More than ever, it isn’t a question of “either-or” but “both.” More local identity—more so on the regional level today (opposed to the old corset of nation-states)—and more global belonging.
Therefore, we should by no means abandon the initiatives of the younger generation. Philanthropy and new worldview approaches aren’t wrong. I have great respect for all who practice minimalism. I, too, consider materialism a very stressful “philosophy” and one that’s capable of sapping my time and energy on a daily basis, distracting me from my personal passion for learning. Satisfying worldly cravings and giving in to our dopamine addiction via consumption sedates us when we want to compensate for the lack of support in our lives and momentarily block out the confusion of our times. This amounts to a life unconsciously lived, not actively experienced and shaped. But if one comes to such a realization, one can find another way. The realization must be followed by motivation, which can be strengthened by any number of incentives.
Technological utopianism, scientific optimism, and the belief in the activation of people isn’t a naive ideology either. Why should minimalism and asceticism be the exclusive path when we can also meet the challenges of the time with performance, growth, and progress?
What problem does the renunciation of air travel really solve? Is it not the technology with which we travel that is the problem? If you enter the departure halls of any airport today, you’ll meet countless people wanting to travel. There’s not a trace of renunciation—certainly not to such an extent that it would have a significant impact on the CO2 balance, and this is despite massively rising airfare. It is questionable, however, whether renunciation and reduction have to be enforced in Western regions of affluence. Taxation, punishment, and reduction lead to a dearth of investments in better technologies. What’s more, while other economic regions continue to rise and a billion new passengers discover flying for themselves, the ineffectiveness of such measures becomes clear: Western states cannot dictate to Asian or African states how they achieve their prosperity, let alone prevent them from living like their Western neighbors, who have been relishing (perverse) growth and industrialization for 150 years. The aviation industry will continue to grow. As early as next year, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicts, global air travel will return to pre-Corona levels. The problem isn’t mobility in the air, but—similar to the current energy crisis—the technology we use to power it.
A NEW NARRATIVE – THE EMERGING CAPITALISM
What would the world look like today if air travel, of all things, were one of the major contributors to reducing CO2 emissions and combating the climate crisis? If objects pulled CO2 out of the air and converted it into energy? If “green” energy was provided free to all, and the more we drove, the more energy we would produce? In his novel Connect, Irish author Julian Gough describes a world in which autonomous driving cars are charged via induction roads powered by solar energy. The means of transport as a battery for our homes and, indeed, the whole of our energy needs: it’s just the beginning of a series of projects that could already be implemented today. And CO2 cleanup, combined with new forms of energy production, is possible not only in the air but also on the seas. Such thoughts aren’t the stuff of science fiction today. Instead, it’s a matter of investment readiness and implementation. The rules of physics don’t say it isn’t possible.
It took two hundred days to complete the first floating LNG liquefied natural gas terminal off the coast of Wilhelmshaven in November. And more will follow in the near future. 65 percent of gas supplies came from Russia at the beginning of 2021, and today it’s 0 percent. Nevertheless, gas storage is full at over 90 percent in the midst of winter. Certainly, there are price challenges, and new challenges no doubt lie ahead. But if we can get a technological handle on such global challenges within a few months, what are we capable of if the effort and investment came from inner conviction and economic incentives?
Where are we failing then? In the deed itself—the action. Crises apparently become meaningful and raise the question of the (German) performance culture. Decadence, fatigue, and shock stiffness meet fear and insecurity. And this may also conceal the existential challenge of our time. Not that of immortality and the fear of death but the endurance of one's own ego for the duration of life. Is this, in the end, our real problem? In any case, I’m convinced that we find the meaning of purpose in effort and activation. Through learning, through experienced progress, and through mastering challenges, human beings find a kind of purpose in life. The never-ending pursuit of progress and a path to better problems.
This week, I read an apt comparison to our time full of crises—a breakdown of someone born in 1900. Imagine that when you turn fourteen, World War I engulfs the globe. Four years later, by your eighteenth birthday, 22 million people have died. At the same time, the Spanish flu breaks out. Until you’re twenty, the daily confrontation with death is part of your life: another 50 million people die. In your twenty-ninth year, the New York stock market crash (October 1929) begins the great economic crisis—the Great Depression, entailing a 25-percent unemployment rate and GDP collapse of 25–30 percent. When you’re thirty-three, things ease up a bit until World War II breaks out when you’re thirty-nine. In the prime of your professional and family life (age 39–45), 75 million people die in war worldwide. Then, when you’re fifty-two, comes the Korean War, which claims another 5 million lives. When you’re sixty-four, just before retirement, the Vietnam War begins, ultimately dragging on until 1975. Millions more die. The Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War are all daily topics in old age. In your seventieth year of life, the first Earth Day is organized: 20 million people take to the streets and shout “climate crisis.”
The past fifty years, on the other hand, could go down in the history books as a success story. “Don't rejoice too soon” is the colloquial phrase, but as Christina Stürmer put it, on the other hand: “Freu dich nicht zu spät” ("Don’t be happy too late”). We’re doing much better today than most people who have ever lived. The basis for this is the economy, or more precisely the market economy. Or capitalism, to be precise. The basis for that is globalization. The basis for that is enlightenment via education. The basis for education is the pursuit of progress, a model that’s neither rigid nor fixed—that’s anything but perfect.
The narrative we’ve created over the past decades for business and the economy isn’t the right one. The art of being right has been perfected. Expertise has been encouraged and demanded. We follow without contradiction an idea of the absolute, a binary way of thinking—0 and 1—that suggests a certain solution. We’ve integrated the digital into our way of thinking and living. What is right? What is good? A knowledge-based society promises the ultimate, incontrovertible answer. Digital thinking is followed by binary behavior. Artificial intelligence is maturing, and humans are increasingly becoming reactive, all the while losing their creativity.
We must keep the good and throw out the bad . . . but what is the good?
This is exceedingly difficult to say. Attempts at “social business,” or “impact investment,” aren’t wrong, but they aren’t quite right either—at least as a solution. After all, individuals may act selflessly, but corporations are inherently profit-driven. Thus, we need to work on better problems, making conversation a lucrative endeavor. Otherwise, we’re left dealing with a finite model, and here too lies the problem. Not in the supposed solutions but in the description of the problems. The economy itself needs an upgrade. Capitalism needs to undergo a kind of metamorphosis.
It's not the art of being right that moves us forward but rather the art of being wrong—precisely philosophy. Reflect, as it does, the human condition itself, capitalism has deep problems, and we can work on them. We humans are able, through intellectual effort, to agree on an accurate description of the problem from which better problems—or, indeed, positive progress—can be derived. Thus, the solutions aren’t the solutions but rather the more accurate and better problems. As Derrida aptly wrote about the coming democracy, we can also speak today of a “coming capitalism.” The Dalai Lama once also aptly described it: “Capitalism is a working model, but it needs compassion.”
And we may work on a humane capitalism. On better problems. The powerful drivers lie in growth/progress, in investment, in entrepreneurship, and in a new performance culture. Today we work because we have to—as the pandemic and the war have shown us—and not because we’re allowed to. But we could have it much better, and we could do one thing above all: make sure that a lot of other people have it better, too. And if that’s not the motivation, then it should at least be worth thinking about.
The failure to understand change and the economy over the last few decades—or rather an unwillingness to invest in performance, technology, and true entrepreneurship—is the main reason why we now face an energy crisis . . . why profound economic potential isn’t being exploited now and likely won’t be exploited in the coming decades.
It’s not all bad, though. Even if it isn’t an “all-clear,” the ozone hole seems to be “magically” recovering. The reason? Ozone-depleting substances have dropped by half since the 1980s. Clearly, we can do something if we want to—if we’re activated.
The will to progress and change is our foundation for this. Faith in other people and a basic trust in what can be done. And that’s what I’m all about. Ten years from now, we’ll look back and ask ourselves how we were ever able to feed so many people, live so comparatively peacefully, and delay ecological collapse for so long with “Stone Age” technologies.
Our task is to liberate ourselves from old self-evident truths. Our task is to combine intellectual effort with concrete activities. It’s about (creating) better, more sustainable problems in order to provide a future for our grandchildren. It develops with the activation of human potential. Such an approach doesn’t demand renunciation but promotes growth and prosperity.
Genuine engagement with our challenges includes lifting as many people as possible out of poverty as quickly as possible through economic growth so that more people can work on problems. If we create profits—if the economy and ecology develop a certain synergy—investments can be made. If we create incentives and better problems and products, people will spring for other solutions, and desired changes in behavior will be the logical, intrinsically motivated result.
The willingness of the human species to change is real, and it’s more powerful than coercion could ever hope to be. I see the rapid way to combat poverty, climate crisis, and geopolitical uncertainty as the pragmatically confident implementation of concrete projects, not potato soup attacks on old paintings. And I see relativism as the basis for striving for better problems.
The Polish poet Wisława Szymborska captured this aptly: “Whatever inspiration is, it arises from a constant ‘I don't know.’ ”
I don't have the answers, yet look positively to our future together. The power to transform is not found in absolute limitation. Activate thyself, and soon, the conversation will change.