Energy Technology

Leading German climate scientist on Fukushima: “A new basis of our coexistence is needed”

Written by Sven Eberlein

In a just published interview under the title “We Are Looting the Past and Future to Feed the Present” with German news magazine Der Spiegel, leading German climate scientist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber puts the kibosh on the false choice between nuclear power and fossil fuels. Discussing the German government’s plans to temporarily shut down seven nuclear power plants, he uses the opportunity to address the underlying fallacy in most of our energy discussions:

The entire affluence-based economic model of the postwar era, be it in Japan or here in Germany, is based on the idea that cheap energy and rising material consumption are supposed to make us happier and happier. This is why nuclear power plants are now being built in areas that are highly active geologically, and why we consume as much oil in one year as was created in 5.3 million years. We are looting both the past and the future to feed the excess of the present. It’s the dictatorship of the here and now.

Finally somebody who is pointing out the elephant in the room that if we keep on wasting and consuming energy like drunken sailors and we don’t wake up to the fact that our current lives are completely unsustainable, none of our brilliant technologies will matter.

We consume as much oil in one year as was created in 5.3 million years.

Let that sink in for a moment. How could that possibly work out for us in the long run? No matter what source that kind of energy comes from, to think that we could live that high on the hog for much longer is just plain irrational.

Asked the usual question whether the government’s new anti-nuclear course will lead to higher CO2 emissions because more coal will be burned once again, Schellnhuber refuses to take the bait and lifts the whole dialog a few notches:

Now everyone is starting to realize that society’s entire fossil-nuclear operating system has no future and that massive investments have to be made in renewable sources of energy.

Call me a softie, but I have a serious weak spot for scientists who talk about deep-seated shifts. Schellnhuber chairs The German Advisory Council on Global Change, which he says will soon unveil a master plan for a transformation of society.

Precisely because of Fukushima, he believes, a new basis of our coexistence is needed:

We need a social contract for the 21st century that seals the common desire to create a sustainable industrial metabolism. We must resolve, once and for all, to leave our descendants more than a legacy of nuclear hazards and climate change. This requires empathy across space and time. To promote this, the rights of future generations should be enshrined in the German constitution.

Hey look, this is not just little idealist Me waxing poetic about peace and love and togetherness. This guy knows his math, meteorology and molecules, and he’s talking about empathy across space and time. Yes baby, maybe we really are evolving and expanding consciousness, maybe there’s hope for more fundamental change after all.

However, asked why his message hasn’t been received so far, he cops to being neither a psychologist nor a sociologist. Judging by his insightful final statement though, he has a profound grasp of both:

But my life experiences have shown that the love of convenience and ignorance are man’s biggest character flaws. It’s a potentially deadly mixture.

Check out the whole interview, it’s a quick read but so much more nutritious than most anything I’ve read in the aftermath of Fukushima.

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Sven Eberlein

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  • “The entire affluence-based economic model of the postwar era, be it in Japan or here in Germany, is based on the idea that cheap energy and rising material consumption are supposed to make us happier and happier.”

    So how poor and therefore presumably happier is Hans Joachim Schellnhuber then?



    • well, I don’t think he’s advocating poverty. If you read the whole interview, he goes on to say this:

      “We have to stabilize energy consumption at a reasonable level. If we would finally start exploiting the full potential for energy efficiency in Germany, we could get by with at least 30 percent less energy input — without being materially worse off.”

      That sounds pretty reasonable to me. As far as the happiness statement, I think what he’s trying to say is that once you have your basic needs covered you don’t really need much more material stuff to be happy. Some folks might disagree with that, but I think if you ask most people what they value most in life, things like friends, family, music, art or being out in nature usually comes up first. Ultimately it’s up to everyone individually to figure out what gives their lives meaning, but I’m thinking that when we’re on our death beds and asked about what was the most important accomplishment of our lives, the number of things we accumulated will be pretty far down the list.


      • mmm,

        I think if you consider the economics candidly, you would understand that reducing ones energy ration by 30%, for most people, means poverty.

        I think most people want a comfortable old age and to see their children more wealthy and educated than themselves.

        Please check out this relevant conversation I had with some evangelistic scientists. Especially read the comment about the economics.’s-up-there-and-how-we-know/



        • interesting discussion. I’m not a scientist, so I generally stay out of that endless cycle of whose numbers and formulas match up better. Let’s say you’re right and there is no climate change, or at least that human CO2 emissions have no effect on climate. We’re still dealing with the issue of using a finite resource (oil) at a breathtaking speed. Whether our economic system acknowledges it or not, there will not be increasing oil supplies forever. We can argue as to when that elusive “peak oil” moment is going to happen, but judging by how deep the oil companies are drilling it’s certainly not too far in the future. So while I think your wish to see our children more wealthy than us comes from a good place in your heart (who wouldn’t want their children to prosper?) I personally don’t think that’s possible indefinitely. Perhaps one or two more generations if we’re lucky and develop a few more technologies to drain a few more cheap drops of oil out of the ground. But what about our great grandchildren? At what point are we going to realize that an economic system based on endless growth is an illusion?

          Sure, it sounds horrible to say we have to cut back, but isn’t it more horrible to tell your children that there’s a cornucopia waiting for them when it’s simply not true? Isn’t it better to start scaling down voluntarily now and invest the remaining resources we have in developing more sustainable sources of energy and conservation than to pretend everything will just continue to be the way it has been until it isn’t anymore?

          Aside from climate change, what about the more immediate effects of our wasteful lifestyles, like the pacific garbage patch, pollution, childhood obesity, or the rapid extinction of species? It just seems like the earth is bursting at the seams and we can’t just pretend everything is okay just because the Dow Jones is going up.

          I agree with you that poor people shouldn’t have to bear more of the economic burden than they already do. You cannot subtract 30% from nothing. And it’s true that even here in the U.S. not everybody can afford to scale down. But the U.S. as a whole consumes 22.5% of the world’s oil with 5% of the resources. Why should the U.S. be allowed to live above its means and not Mexico or Nigeria? There’s so much that could be done to conserve energy in the U.S. without making people’s lives miserable, but the only reason we’re not doing it is because a few people are getting rich by selling cheap oil.

          Why not at least try to conserve and promote a culture that can live and be happy with less? (Did we really need all that plastic crap that is now covering large parts of the Pacific?) What do we have to lose? I’d gladly be proven wrong on AGW, but I simply cannot logically wrap my mind around how a growth-based economic system could possibly be sustained indefinitely.

  • “Schellnhuber chairs The German Advisory Council on Global Change, which he says will soon unveil a master plan for a transformation of society.” !!! I can’t wait to read that. I wonder if he’s using any eco-city designs.
    Thanks for some really great news, Sven.

    • Pam, I wonder if this is part of the shifting that’s happening — scientists integrating left and right brain knowledge. As far as ecocities, the Germans got a slight advantage because our cities never got as completely ripped up to make room for the automobile as in the U.S. Still, there’s a lot of room for improvement. However, one town, Freiburg-Vauban, is as close to being an ecocity model as it gets. Check it out:,_Freiburg

  • Sven,

    “But the U.S. as a whole consumes 22.5% of the world’s oil with 5% of the resources”

    How do YOU live then? Are you part of this terrible “US addiction” or do you live in a tepee somewhere in Death Valley?

    Actually China just passed the US in total oil consumption, but it will be about another 40 yrs (at the present rate of growth) before they equal the US per capita consumption.
    Some say under Chairman Mao’s rule and the Cultural Revolution, Chinese people used almost nil oil per head and therefore it is fair that they get a crack at a reasonable living standard.

    Maybe a cultural revolution in the western part of the world is what you are subconsiously hoping for. There are plenty of people who could be “Green Guards”.