“Using less to achieve more” / Interview with Marina Fischer-Kowalski

Univ.-Prof. Dr. Marina Fischer-Kowalski EN

Creative strategies for a global quality of life

— Marina Fischer-Kowalski in an Interview mit Hansjürgen Schmölzer

How can globally just development be achieved when many resources are reaching the end and the world’s population nonetheless continues to grow? And what contribution can creative thought processes and solution approaches make to overcoming these problems? These issues can only be considered when there is a willingness to undergo a fundamental change in perspective. In this interview, Marina Fischer-Kowalski formulates a series of surprisingly conclusive, if also surprisingly simple, thoughts on some of these questions.

Recently, the Federal Ministry of Science, Research and Economy presented a new creative industries strategy for Austria. According to this strategy, “The creative industries should be strengthened and further developed in order to be able to generate an even greater impetus for growth and employment in the future”. In your opinion, do we need more growth?
That is an ambivalent question. If we attempt to continue along the road that we have already taken, then we will need more growth, since many things along this route cannot function without growth. But my suggestion is of course that we should seek a different path. That’s why I’m not so unhappy about the global financial crisis of 2008, since it created a pressure to look for new approaches. The general public was also forced to acknowledge that the old ones are no longer working. Given the scientific insights that I have gained, to me, that’s not a bad thing.

You once said: “If a large number of people seize the opportunities presented to them with intelligence and courage, great systemic changes can occur”. How is this hope reinforced?
By looking at examples. There is a hope that must always be nurtured by making interesting new observations. And you need to make a bit of an effort, for example by looking at how happy everyone was that the world climate summit in Paris did yield results in the end. There were so many people afterwards who breathed a sigh of relief and who thought that yes, there is some progress after all. But since then, not much has happened. Far greater attention is paid to the influx of refugees, borders and other issues – although ultimately, this is also related to the climate. The more we militarise, the more difficult we make it for ourselves to deal properly with the climate. To this extent, hope also has to be actively nurtured. And I of course also nurture it through empirical data. A study by Julia Steinberger in Sussex shows that worldwide, for the past 40-50 years, we need an ever decreasing amount of energy and resources in order to reach the same “human development level” as defined in the United Nations index system. Every five years, this resource consumption curve flattens slightly.

But it’s only the growth in resource consumption that is flattening, not resource consumption itself. Isn’t that right?
Yes. But we can say that in 2005 – the latest year for which figures are available from this study – we needed 35% less energy to achieve the same high HDI (editor’s note: Human Development Index) of 0.85, in other words, about the same standard of development that we have in Austria, as we did in 1975. You could say that the western industrial countries have reached a saturation point since the 1970s with regard to resources and energy consumption. I find that encouraging. However, this of course is not yet of any great significance worldwide, since the aspiring economies are rocketing upwards in a way that significantly overcompensates the slowdown among the rich industrial countries.

Is the Human Development Index not also problematic as a parameter in this context, implying as it does that others who are not yet as advanced in this development must begin a process of catching up? To which from an ethical point of view they are entitled. However, this means that resource consumption growth then automatically continues to increase. An ethical dilemma?
Yes. But the example of the flattening of the connection between human development and resource consumption does after all apply worldwide. This connection does not only apply to the western industrial countries. If you take a closer look at resource consumption in the western industrial countries, you can see that since the 1970s, the gross national product has consistently increased – and resource consumption is plateauing. This is a positive development. On a global scale, this can at least be used to demonstrate that these countries no longer need the same amount of energy and resources in order to achieve a high level of development. We have therefore, if you like, learned some lessons worldwide as a society. We have learned how to manage with less. This does not mean that we therefore actually do so, but we do have the opportunity. And that’s already a very good thing.

This is due to the fact that technology has become more efficient. Despite this, the consumption behaviour of every one of us has a part to play in the level of resource consumption. To what degree is every individual with their way of life in a position to control resource consumption in the first place?
I believe that no single individual is so terribly important. However, the individual is significant to the extent that the things that you have experienced yourself are communicated to others and reported as experiences. But no single person ultimately controls their resource consumption. This occurs primarily through the context and the situation as a whole in which the individual is embedded. You have the available technology on the one hand and the functioning of the economy and many other contexts on the other. Take cities, for example: if you have a very good public transport system, as we do in Vienna, then public transport is used for 40% of all kilometres travelled. And if you have a terrible public transport system like the one in Los Angeles, then everyone drives around in their SUV. And that’s not easy to control as an individual, because in Los Angeles, you can’t travel anywhere without a car. The framework of opportunity for action by people must be changed within society. Only then can the activity itself change. At least that’s my conviction as a sociologist.

With regard to frameworks of opportunity, where can incentives be developed on a scale that goes beyond the regional level?
For resource consumption, the design and the sales strategies of goods are of course an extremely important factor. Naturally, short service lives, rapid wear, and even expiry cycles installed in the products themselves, are poison when it comes to low resource consumption. That’s quite clear. However, I believe that here, regulatory intervention really is possible. For example, it could be a requirement that a certain proportion of all industrially produced goods should be generated from secondary resources. Currently, the entire recycling industry, as imaginative as it has become to some degree, has constant economic problems, because proper recycling also costs money. Resources have become more expensive, but are so terribly volatile that you can’t really be sure that as a recycler, you can successfully sell your product. This is where regulatory intervention could come into play. And that would certainly make sense, since it is impossible to see why no resources at all should be left over for those countries that develop later than the wealthy industrial nations.

Here, the argument also applies that when only one national domestic economy takes regulatory action, the other countries benefit from the costs involved – and in so doing, also gain competitive advantages that arise from such regulations. How can this be counteracted?
Since the wealthy western industrial countries have an unbelievable reserve of resources – more than anywhere else in the world – both in the form of their wealth of goods and their waste, this really is an opportunity at a time in which we are threatened with a shortfall of resources. If the recycling industry is not adjusted to such technical and economic opportunities in good time, it will not be possible to benefit from this chance at the right moment. However, in this regard, I am actually very optimistic. We are not talking about unending regulation, but rather about a regulatory intervention that offers an impetus for a certain period of time in order to bring about a change in strategy. In my view, this is justifiable and is also possible. Probably not as an individual country, but within the European Union, it would by all means be possible.

One important and not entirely unproblematic issue with regard to creative output is patent and copyright protection. There is an almost sacrosanct paradigm among the industrial nations that patent protection is an essential requirement for scientific and economic progress. Is that the case?
No. And in the areas in which this no longer applies, either legally or illegally, you can already see that those involved are not disadvantaged as a result. Of course, it is a huge business, for example in the pharmaceutical industry. There, the issue is particularly highly contested. As a result, the pharmaceutical industry develops products that are intended for a wealthy market, but not necessarily for a large market. This is a misallocation, if you like: no new anti-Malaria products have been developed, since nobody living in the wealthy countries is suffering from the disease. Yet progress has certainly been made against illnesses that are common in the western industrialised countries, because that’s where the money lies. And here, I find it entirely understandable that developing countries or also China are circumventing this protection. This is not damaging to creativity or to economic progress. The clearest example of this is in the IT sector, where apps, games and who knows what other good ideas are developed and given away for free, and make an important contribution to the intellectual landscape. Evidently, it is possible to live with such mechanisms.

When it comes to global food supplies, patent protection is of far greater importance than in the pharmaceutical industry. How can we get around the problem that a small number of companies control a majority share of global food production?
In my view, this really is very problematic. One of the hopes that I nurture in this regard is that in the long term, industrial agriculture will undermine its own foundations. I can’t imagine that we can or should be able to endlessly feed the world through industrial agriculture. Some parts of the global agricultural sector are repeatedly trying to break out of these monopolies and escape from these exploitation strategies in order to pursue other paths. I regard this as being extremely important. It is impossible to estimate the extent to which this might succeed and whether there may even be a revolution against this control of seed. But that is an extremely important ethical problem.

You once said: “There must be a global process of negotiation over the use of our resources, otherwise we will descend into barbarity”. How could such a negotiation process be realistically implemented that really does achieve results?
Currently, we regard the global climate, although it is different wherever you go, as being to some degree a global common good. Until now, this has certainly not been the case for resources. Take freshwater, for example. Currently, it is traded – as we say, virtually – on the global market on an incredible scale. In other words, it is needed in order to produce one product or another, which is then traded on the market. This is not particularly problematic in regions such as Latin America or parts of Asia, where there is a relatively high level of precipitation. However, in many other countries, this is already a problem. The result, for example, is that through these goods, the US, which overall has sufficient precipitation, has become one the largest virtual freshwater importers, without having to visibly “suction off” rain from other countries. Here, I can imagine that an approach involving documentation and – to put it one way – denunciation could have a certain impact. These processes need to be exposed and made visible. When it comes to metals and rare earths that are only found in certain places and which are monopolised to an unbelievable degree, there is, as far as I know, no commercial field that is controlled by so few companies as the metal mining industry. This is a problem that the world has been faced with since Roman times. Then, too, the issue was a source of conflict: who owned the silver mines, and how could the Roman state continue to pay its soldiers when the silver mines suddenly became less productive?

The answers to this problem then have still continued to apply during the two thousand years that have followed: they belong to those who have military might. 
That is correct. But the Roman state was still extremely keen to maintain its power over the silver mines. And here, nature also played its role along the way, of course, in that some mines were sooner or later simply depleted and it was not so easy to find new ones. And we all know what happened to the Roman Empire.

Let us turn from the major consumers and controllers of resources to the creatives. Can they contribute anything at all to improving the world, or are they far too weak in realpolitik terms?
Many people claim that artists and art have a keen sense and are harbingers of new opportunities, who also demonstrate which outdated ones should be eliminated from the world. And who signal this in an as yet pre-political form. I think this is plausible. If for example you look at the role that art has played in the fossil fuel revolution, which was accompanied by the French Revolution and the revolution of 1848, you can see that art had already anticipated a new world in advance which had by no means yet become an established concept at the level of political imagination and economic facts. This is why I hope that these anticipatory feats of the imagination in its institutionalised form as art – in the broadest sense of the term – still exist today.

The Age of Enlightenment, which placed rational man with the human rights to which he is “naturally” entitled at the forefront, led to the great revolutions. To American independence, to the French Revolution. For this reason, one might say that in principle, we do not in reality have any further need of it. What might come next?
I am of a slightly different opinion. I am currently working on a study about the timing of revolutions. The question is how the timing of revolutions correlates with an energy transfer from a landbased, biomass economy to a fossil energy-based manufacturing and subsequently industrial economy. And you’d be amazed how close the relationship is. All these revolutions, including the Russian and Chinese revolutions, take place in their various countries during the period when the use of fossil energy first increases. In this first transition from an agrarian to an industrial mode of production. In way that can be precisely replicated using mathematical models, all major revolutions occur when there is a jump in fossil energy consumption of between 2 and 10 gigajoules per head. Around 50 countries are currently in this critical range, such as Afghanistan, Haiti and almost all the southern African countries. On the other hand, of the approximately 200 countries in the world, around 50 lie within the uppermost range of the fossil energy transition. Other countries will never be able to start using coal, oil and gas on the same scale as was the case with the wealthy industrial nations, since we simply don’t have sufficient fossil energy – quite apart from the consequences to the climate. But precisely during this period of initial upswing in the use of fossil energy, those countries that today are undergoing this transition, such as Myanmar, Bangladesh or Nepal, are all experiencing political change, be it democratic or failed change. So, we’ve not yet got past this phenomenon.

This work is based on the theory that social change of this nature is triggered in parallel with an upturn in energy consumption. But could it not be the case that this energy consumption growth indicator was only valid during a certain historical period? During the industrial revolution, it was energy that was needed for system change. Today, however, we are on the brink of a digital revolution. Now, it is not energy consumption per se that is the driving momentum, but access to information.
I agree with you. I also don’t believe that the rich western industrial countries will at the present time change their social structures as a result of an increase in their energy consumption. In the highly developed countries, other mechanisms play a role that may trigger social changes on a larger scale. This has to do with the level of technological development. The upcoming conversion to more decentralised, renewable energies will probably also lead to social changes. This will probably not be as revolutionary as the examples I gave just now, but at the same time, we should not underestimate how many countries are today still in precisely this low energy situation, in which just a small increase in energy consumption can require changes to the entire social structure – which can also be suppressed or fail.

In this context, let us look at the role of creatives, including in an economic sense. If you take the strategies in most highly developed countries that relate to the economy and creative industries, then the opening credits are always the same: the creative industries will be a driving force for economic change. Here, a paradigm of the scalability of innovations produced by the creative industries also comes into play as a goal. The purpose is always growth. On the other hand, on a social level, an increasing refusal can be observed among creatives themselves to comply with such a life concept, which is geared towards entrepreneurial scalability. Are these countries counting their chickens before they are hatched?
A considerable share of the creative industries operates primarily in advertising, and is therefore already very closely associated with growth. But the essential factor in the creative field may also be that this is a new type of working model, in which the people in this area are looking for intrinsic satisfaction, which does not usually make them particularly rich people, however. For many of them, this is also not the main goal. Instead, the activity per se should be something enjoyable, useful and satisfying. We can now say that in the same way as the old revolution led to wage labour in the cities and largely pushed farming to the margins as a model of dependence, so work will again change at a fundamental level with the next energy transition. I think that the creative industries are already in part anticipating a new working model – possibly for the better or worse – with a great deal of social uncertainty, unlimited working hours, which penetrate one’s whole life. But also with models for inner satisfaction and the desire to communicate, to create something together with others or by oneself that is meaningful.

The industrial revolution led to the introduction of wage labour as a mass phenomenon. And since then, when we talk about the economy, we always refer to this duality: creating jobs on the one hand, and having or obtaining a job on the other. Is this duality between employer and employee still at all applicable? Particularly in an area in which other creatives are designing their own ways of living? In this context, the further question arises as to how many people working in fields connected to the created industries are living in uncertain conditions. How can framework conditions be created that provide these people with the prospect of escaping from this precarious situation?
I agree with you. This duality between employer and employee applies less to this area. I remember a well-known French sociologist, Nicos Poulantzas, who had a theory that these many small selfemployed people are trying out different economic and design strategies. And the ideas that really are successful are adopted by large-scale industry, where they are further developed so as to make a profit. But the others are unsuccessful. Poulantzas views the field of the small-scale self-employed as a practical experiment field for large-scale industry, where something can be tried out without much risk involved, and is only adopted when it has already been fully developed. In his view, these one-person companies are the victim of this employer-employee duality. However, I’m not sure whether this theory fully answers these questions. I suspect that this dominant model of 40-hour week wage labour as the life-characterising feature, from the moment you leave school until you draw your pension will not be the labour model of the future. On the other hand, we are naturally at the same time seeing the social state being undermined in many areas. And as a result, all those who are not lucky enough to find shelter in this social state model are exposed to major risks.

But as yet, hardly any more highly developed social state – such as those in Europe – has been able to find a halfway satisfactory answer to this question. At the same time, it is precisely this stratum of creatives, who are mainly living in a socially insecure, if not precarious, situation, who are being promoted in the search for new economic policy solutions for the future. Can this work?
Schicht der Kreativen. Kann das funktionieren?

There are already individual elements of the social state that reflect this, such as educational leave. This is something that I see in my field of work. If someone loses their job or small companies do not have enough income to continue employing someone, then that person is often “sent” for one or two months or even half a year on educational leave. And then they can come back. These are models that also favour creatives in the Austrian welfare state. In other areas, this is of course not nearly as common. What can also be observed to an increasing extent in this context are these patterns of one person holding down two or three jobs at the same time. On the one hand, you have your creative job, while on the other you earn your living, by working in a restaurant, for example.

If you take a closer look at the sociocultural milieus in which these people move, and they are relatively similar in most European cities, do you have the impression that there, life models are being tried out first that might also function beyond the bounds of the growth logic of the post-war years? What influence can such sociocultural milieus have on societal development overall?
This growth logic has been applied since the Second World War. We also call what happened during the 1950s and 60s “the great acceleration”. This logic was first called into question with the cultural revolution of ’68. At that time, the question was asked for the first time as to whether this really was such an admirable life model, that we are now all growing and consuming more and more. That was the first time that consumption was criticised on a huge scale. From the hippies to the anarchists and the entire broad spectrum that developed in this atmosphere – worldwide, from Japan to Argentina, right around the globe. This critical attitude also dominated the debate in the 1970s.

The debate, perhaps, but not the effects?
Yes, the effects, too. What I said at the beginning of the interview about the stagnation of resource consumption began in the western industrialised nations during the 1970s. Physical consumption no longer grew so rapidly. And the gross national product grew somewhat less. However, then came this neo-liberal wave with Thatcher and Reagan, in which the only message was: now we must grow. During the 1960s, growth was not talked up to the same extent. It simply happened. However, these neo-liberal approaches now make it the key political goal, precisely because it’s no longer so easy to achieve. But in my view, these new social strata that we now have, like the hippies before them, are perhaps developing a concept for different ways of living that is no longer of such minority interest. And that will also have a political impact.

If you take that in the context of the latest tax reforms proposed by our current government, you see the fundamental paradigm that appears to apply across the political arena in most other European countries: domestic consumption must be encouraged by reducing taxes, in order to generate economic growth. Does this correspond to the chosen way of living of people in these countries on the one hand, while also complying with an economically sensible logic designed to save resources?
I think it follows an understandable logic – although the tax model never really achieved this – in that there are large social strata who really are too poor and who have too few opportunities for consumption. Who do indeed urgently need a better chance to consume for the very sensible satisfaction of needs. Where waste really occurs is in the upper regions of the income hierarchy. Where not only a second home, but a third home is purchased, or the third car and the SUVs that we see driving around in Vienna, that look as though we’re in the middle of a civil war and the owners have to shield themselves from attack in their big cars. These are symptoms of consumer behaviour gone mad. But they are not to be found in the middle and lower sections of society.

Is that not a phenomenon that is no longer as prevalent in western Europe as it is in the former Eastern Bloc countries, for example, where a few people have become very rich, and consumption is very much in focus. Is this consumption as a way of advertising your status not already a fading phenomenon in western Europe?
Here, it is no longer regarded as being in good taste to brag about your own consumption. But if you look at the proportion of SUVs in the cities as an indicator, then you can see that it is still on the increase. In this regard, I don’t have the impression that it’s no longer important. Take the latest bank crisis as an example. A large number of people rose to higher social levels who until then had full employment security and who earned very well. Who dealt with money day in, day out. And for whom money is of great importance in their private lives. Suddenly, they are in a position of insecurity. That has consequences for society. When they have to worry that they can no longer afford the latest SUV models, they get upset. This might not be as spectacular as a few oligarchs in the east who slam down caviar onto tables by the kilogram in various desirable skiing resorts, but still, it’s the same phenomenon. Those of us who remember life in the 1950s in the west will know that during that time, people really flaunted their wealth. And we are now seeing the same thing happen in the east.

If you fulfil the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from the bottom to the top, and basic needs are covered, then in reality the only questions that must be answered are: what makes life worth living? And what makes us happy?
Also: what brings us approbation? That’s the really tricky question. Approbation and attention from others. That’s becoming a rare commodity. In order to achieve that – and this is extremely important – there are naturally different methods that also function differently, depending on which social group you belong to.

Do we then need a new strategy for the approbation economy in order to be able to reduce material consumption? Social media is one such phenomenon to a certain extent.
That’s exactly what it is. This opportunity of receiving resonance from others for my opinions and my own self-depictions is something that social media offers. And that seems to satisfy a great many people. This attention economy that exists alongside the money economy, and which is not at all necessarily that closely linked to it, is already a new form of satisfaction that our society has to offer.

Could that ironically help us reduce material resource consumption?
I think it could. This old concept that if you are poor, you are lonely, because you don’t have the means to move in the public space, to make connections, is of course changed by this media. Perhaps not for today’s 80-year-olds, but certainly for the next generation of 80-year-old women.

Even so, the domestic economies do not appear to be escaping from the clutches of the growth logic. Various attempts have been made to use other indicators as key criteria in politics instead of the gross national product. Gross national happiness in Bhutan, for example, of which you once said: “If all people are happy, that’s all well and good, but it doesn’t lead to anything”. Do you have other suggestions as to how we might escape from the ecological and geopolitical consequences of the growth paradigm?
There are different current positions on the subject of “growth reduction”, or a “degrowth economy”. From my perspective, a decisive factor is the extent to which it is possible to decouple economic development from the consumption of resources. In my view, there are two areas in which a great deal could be achieved without having to negatively impact on people’s quality of life and level of development. The first area is nutrition. A considerable portion of calorie consumption, particularly in the industrial states, is attributable to animal food. Yet industrial meat production in particular is extremely wasteful of resources. The second area is construction. We must become more compact. Sprawling growth in housing over larger areas will result in irreversible resource consumption consequences in the longer term. That’s why it’s particularly exciting to examine the structures and concepts of cities that are in the process of being newly created. Here, interesting options arise. For example in the field of supply and disposal. Or transport. A current report by the Worldwatch Institute entitled “Can Cities be Sustainable?” tackles issues such as these. And it can be seen that good concepts can improve the resource consumption balance 2 or 3 times over. As well as space development and infrastructure concepts, the design of small-area social structures and the social organisation of needs supply in particular are also playing an important role. These are not only ideas taken directly from the sharing economy; the fundamental principle applies that a supportive, integrated, peaceful society generally requires fewer resources, because those already available are being used more efficiently.

About the interviewee

Univ.-Prof. Dr. Marina Fischer-Kowalski is the founder and long-term director of the Institute of Social Ecology in Vienna, Professor of Social Ecology at Alpen-Adria University in Klagenfurt and Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Vienna. In 2015, she was presented with the Austrian State Award for Arts and Sciences, First Class. Alongside numerous other functions, she was President of the International Society for Ecological Economics from 2013-2016, and chair of the of the scientific advisory board of the Institute for Climate Research in Potsdam. Her research focuses on social ecology, the societal metabolic process, socio-ecological transitions, theories of social change, environmental sociology and the societal use of resources.