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Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, DE

German natural scientist and politician (SPD)


As an expert for biology, the environment and ecological efficiency, you have contributed significantly towards creating greater awareness of the issue of sustainability. In your book Factor Five: Transforming the Global Economy through 80% Improvements in Resource Productivity, you explain how global resource policy can be improved by up to 80 percent and politically implemented. Within which time frame could you see that happening?

In 60 years, if one lets everything continue as before; in 30 years, if one changes the framework conditions in a sensible way. And, incidentally, the developing countries will probably be quicker than us, because we have already harvested many of the ‘low-hanging fruits’.

You are calling on industry to follow new paths and promote, among other things, the principle of remanufacturing, which is only in its beginnings in Europe. Have you already been able to find supporters for this in large European or German industrial firms?

To be honest, I am not a preacher looking for supporters. But remanufacturing is entering the global markets from Asia, and there’s probably no stopping its advance in the automotive industry. When metals become really scarce and expensive, one will realise that the route via the scrap trade, melting and recycling is less elegant and less cost effective than remanufacturing.

How far has Europe travelled on the path towards a sustainable future, in your opinion? And what role can, should or must European – but also the national – politics play?

Europe – especially Germany, Scandinavia and the Benelux – is better than most other regions. Japan and South Korea are on a par with us; China is rapidly moving in the same direction, but is still consuming vast amounts of energy and minerals for the development of its infrastructure at present. Europe can successfully make it its trademark to think ahead and act in an environmentally friendly manner. Chinese people have told me that they abide by REACH, the EU’s chemicals directive, because they believe that soon only REACH-certified products will be approved for sale.

One of your primary concerns is a permanent green tax reform. What specific form should this take on? And how can one prevent these changes from causing the income gap between the rich and the poor to widen even more?

I am indeed in favour of an active, gentle increase in the price of energy and primary resources in combination with the documented improvements in efficiency, so that the monthly costs for energy and minerals remain the same on average. This is analogous to the industrial revolution, which saw the hourly gross wages and the labour productivity both increase twentyfold. What a fantastic wealth generator! To prevent fractures in society, I suggest – incidentally, this is copied from South Africa – concessionary rates for basic services. Furthermore, industry should come to enjoy neutrality regarding revenue: the money collected there should flow back into that particular sector – per job. In this way, a twofold incentive is created to become more efficient and to maintain/generate jobs. So nobody needs to emigrate.

You wrote that early human civilisations, in which egoism was dominant, simply died out, and that in the surviving civilisations egoism was always embedded in social obligations, ownership for example. But are people not inherently egoistical? How can we succeed in finding a replacement for egoism as the decisive driving force in trade?

I cannot and do not want to abolish egoism. I want to embed it. Adam Smith’s notion that the egoism of the individual creates prosperity for the country was firmly embedded, to him (he was a moral philosopher), in the laws and social conventions. The model turned nasty with the advent of globalisation: now the market that rewards egoism is global, while the law and sense of decency remain national concerns. Europe must insist on global rules! Legislators and consumers must punish those who do not comply.

What does sustainable entrepreneurship mean to you personally?

Promoting ecological sustainability in one’s own business, in addition to economic and social sustainability, which are integrated out of self-interest. And cooperating with the government and with society, when the general conditions are to be changed so that sustainability becomes more and more viable.

Which sectors do you see as particularly exemplary, and where do you still see a clear need for catching up with regard to sustainable entrepreneurship? Is there a particular project that sticks out in your memory – and if so, why?

In general, the closer to the customer, the more exemplary it is. In the case of foodstuffs and personal hygiene, the top brands cannot afford to have a bad image. The biggest need for catching up is in the financial markets with their ruthless battle for return on capital. This battle makes it almost impossible for entrepreneurs of other sectors to make long-term decisions. The crazy thing is that the financial markets under the leadership of the Anglo-Saxons repeatedly manage to be excluded from regulations that the chemicals or toy industries are subjected to as a matter of course!

How do you rate the initiative of the Sustainable Entrepreneurship Award (SEA)?

Positively. It should also have no qualms about comparing sectors with each other, and not only choose the ‘best in class’ within a particular sector. Otherwise the villains in the financial market will continue to get away with their misdeeds.