In 2008, Prof. Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker (69), Dean of the Donald Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at the University of California (Santa Barbara), will receive Europe’s most lucrative environmental prize, worth 500,000 euros, the German Environmental Award, presented by the Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt (DBU). Prof. von Weizsäcker is being honoured for his decades of outstanding work in promoting sustainable management strategies in politics, business and society worldwide. He becomes the prize together with Dr Holger Zinke (45), founder of the biotech company BRAIN AG (Zwingenberg), in the Rostock Town Hall on 26 October, presented by German President Horst Köhler. The DBU spoke with Prof. von Weizsäcker after he had just heard that he would receive the honour.
DBU: Professor von Weizsäcker, you have just heard that you are to receive the 2008 German Environmental Award. What does this mean to you?
von Weizsäcker: “It is the crowning moment of my career in environmental research and politics.”
DBU: In the 90s, you played a major role in establishing the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy. Then you were in the German Bundestag, before leaving for California in 2005 as Dean of a School of environmental science and management at the university in Santa Barbara, a rare subject in the USA. Why did you move there?
von Weizsäcker: “The Donald Bren School of Environmental Science and Management is a prestigious graduate institution and has the only environmental graduate program west of Chicago in America. I was looking forward to a great new challenge.”
DBU: Was it one of your objectives for this scientific work to play a greater role in applied politics?
von Weizsäcker: “Not at all. As a foreigner I am not supposed to engage in American politics. But if the School’s quality makes politicians turn to our professors and hire our graduates, that’s a legitimate way of influencing the debate here. Much of that could happen after I have left.”
DBU: You’re leaving the Bren School?
von Weizsäcker: “I told my friends in California from the outset that I’ll accept the job for a mere three years. I was, of course proud having a contract for five years that could be extended to ten years. But I am cutting it short so that I can return home before the Alzheimer phase. I can pursue my international assignments from home in Germany.”
DBU: What has changed at the Bren School since you’ve been Dean?
von Weizsäcker: ”The Bren School has been an excellent place for environmental sciences, environmental economics, nature protection management and many other important fields. So in a sense, it could have been sufficient just continuing that avenue of success. However, I also saw opportunities for the School in making better use of the wonderful campus of the University of California in Santa Barbara, with its five Nobel Prize winners and a very elite kind of academic environment: So I engaged in connecting the School better to engineering, political sciences and global studies, environmental media, and humanities, in addition to the existing ties with economics and the natural sciences. Environmental sciences benefit greatly from interdisciplinary approaches. Part of my mission, as I saw it, was also to help establish an option for our students to specialise in climate and energy. The faculty is now all behind it. In this context, we are also going to hire a new professor of energy and resource productivity, which, I believe, will be the first of its kind in the US. Then, in terms of fundraising, I believe that, in a team with Assistant Dean Jennifer Deacon, we have been quite successful in attracting money to the tune of ten million dollars or so – which is not bad for such a small school – and the attraction of the Donald Bren School for students has definitely increased.”
DBU: More than ten years ago, in your book “Factor Four”, you calculated how to double wealth while halving resource use. Next year comes “Factor Five” – a new calculation?
von Weizsäcker: “It is more or less the same philosophy, but it involves quite a number of details that are different. First, it has a much stronger geographical focus on Asia. Secondly, it is a bit stricter on economic instruments that make the dramatic improvement of energy and resource productivity profitable. On today’s market many efficiency improvements are not profitable and have to wait for a change in the political frame conditions to become profitable. Factor Five will have a stronger emphasis than Factor Four on systems improvement as opposed to isolated technical advances. Let me give an example. Replacing old light bulbs by LED lighting, - that’s technology. Reducing the need for lighting by better architecture and automated switch-off devices, - that’s systems design. Other systems improvements relate to the logistics of a supply chain or an optimised transport infrastructure in a city. The systems approach alone can make the difference between quadrupling and quintupling overall efficiency.”
DBU: Which technology do you think promises the greatest increase in efficiency?
von Weizsäcker: “Well, as I said, it is not really a question of one technology – there are many, there are thousands. At the time of the steam engine invented by James Watt 200 years ago, this was a leap forward in labour productivity. But this did not mean that all America or Britain would become steam-engine countries. Hundreds of other innovations came around the same time, or later, to constitute what is now known as the Industrial Revolution. The melody of that revolution was the twenty-fold increase of labour productivity. In our days, however, labour is not in short supply. The real scarcity is natural resources. The next technological revolution will have to be about resource productivity. Increasing it five fold and one day twenty-fold will make our countries a lot more elegant. All the dinosaur way of a wasteful use of energy, water and other resources has to be thrown over board in favour of much more elegant, technologies and systems.”
DBU: Especially during the last years, energy has become very expensive. Is it in your opinion still too cheap?
von Weizsäcker: “I am of course touched by the fate of people suffering from drastically increased energy prices over the last two years or so. However, the trouble is not the price itself: it has been the shock. Had there been a development like the one in Denmark or in Japan, where energy prices remained high all the time, there would not have been any shock, so these countries rather thrive in our days. In the US and other countries, very low energy prices during the 1980s gave rise to a new boom in urban sprawl with houses financed with ridiculously poor securities. Low energy prices also encouraged Detroit to create a new car fleet of SUVs, or sport utility vehicles, which again are dinosaurs from the fuel efficiency point of view. The mortgage crisis and the automakers crisis could have been avoided under a trajectory of slowly and predictably rising energy prices. This analysis then leads to my message for today: Make it happen that energy prices go up in parallel with energy productivity gains, as has been the case with labour ‘prices’ - gross wages - that went up in parallel with labour productivity. Then you will see the next Industrial Revolution have the energy and resource productivity as its melody.”
DBU: You advise leading business figures and governments – for example, the Chinese government. What are the main problems today?
von Weizsäcker: “Well – giving advice is a very individual kind of thing. You cannot come with common platitudes; it’s better to be concrete. So if I am going to speak with Chinese officials, I know that, for their concept of a harmonious society, it will be absolutely essential to increase the energy efficiency of the country, because otherwise they can’t overcome the present pollution and other environmental problems. But social equity and prosperity have an equal weight with energy efficiency. Talking with business leaders, my message circles around credibility linked with environmental records. A different theme in my work has been the unfortunate weakening of the state since the early 1980s, exaggerated since the mid 1990s. The neo-conservative ideology of leaving everything to the markets, chiefly the financial markets, has been a nightmare for me since a long time. The recent meltdown on Wall Street has finally brought it home to everybody that something was fundamentally wrong with this doctrine. My political advice since the mid 1990s has been to work toward and establish a new good balance between public and private goods, and between the public and private sectors. You can’t be successful on climate and the environment in a world that ignores or ideologically opposes long term thinking and public interests and leaves everything to individual greed and the orchestrating powers of the markets.”
DBU: How openly do you address ecological problems? Do you say frankly what you think?
von Weizsäcker: “Of course, I try to be as honest as possible, but you always have to recognize the needs and preoccupations of your partner. Speaking in China, you won’t get anywhere by blaming the Chinese on their high energy use and carbon emissions. You have to recognise what it means to build infrastructures for more than a billion people. But in the context of their concept of a harmonious society, they may be susceptible to my idea of a trajectory of gradually increasing energy prices in proportion to energy productivity gains, because, by definition, it implies no additional suffering. Acknowledging and honouring the conditions under which your partner is working, is not at all dishonest. It is just some kind of a compromise of Realpolitik.“
DBU: What has been the biggest success of your career in environmental politics for you personally?
von Weizsäcker: “Perhaps the biggest success was the launching of the concept of a factor of four. The idea actually originated from my friend Friedrich Schmidt-Bleek who would go for a factor of ten, but in the field of energy, that number was a bit outlandish, as I saw it. The factor thinking mindset means that we should not be content with gains of a shabby ten or twenty percent of energy efficiency, and than lean back, but should rather think more boldly in terms of 300 percent, which is a factor of four, or 400 percent – a factor of five, or 900 percent – that is a factor of ten. And we should make this bold objective the perspective of my company, of my country, of our civilisation, of our technological progress! Then we have a chance answering the climate challenge or the international resource challenge. Today, I see with a great deal of satisfaction that international organisations, such as the United Nations Environment Program, the OECD, the European Union and others, have been supportive of the new mindset of a multifold increase of resource productivity. Some say that it goes to merits of our wonderful team at the Wuppertal Institute that this new concept has made into the language of leading politicians and business people.”
DBU: On 26 October in Rostock, you are going to receive 250,000 euros in prize money. Do you already know what you are going to do with the money?
von Weizsäcker: “There is a possibility that my wife Christine and I will establish a small institute or think tank in the city of Emmendingen, near the Swiss and French borders, on environmental topics including biodiversity, climate and Factor Five. Some up-front money may be very welcome for this new enterprise. Moreover, we are a large family with five children and so far seven grandchildren and were never plagued by not knowing what to do with our money.”
DBU: You are receiving the award jointly with the company manager Dr Holger Zinke, the founder of the biotechnology company BRAIN AG – what do you have to say about your fellow prize-winner?
von Weizsäcker: “I am delighted to see a creative biologist working in so-called white biotechnology, which is very good for industry and helps save scarce resources. I am fully aware of the need in our world for excellent scientists and creative engineers and I wish him all the best in his adventure at BRAIN.“
The interview was held by Taalke Nieberding, DBU.