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Environmental awareness in Germany: ‘We are highly sensitive to environmental issues’

How has environmental awareness developed in Germany? And where does Germany stand in the world today? Professor Udo Kuckartz, one of the most prominent experts on environmental awareness in Germany, answers this and other questions.

Professor Kuckartz, how environmentally aware are the Germans?

Professor Kuckartz: We are highly sensitive to environmental issues, are very well informed, and generally have extremely positive attitudes towards the environment. This awareness has increased in recent years. But with regard to the willingness to take action, we do not compare too well with other countries.

Where does Germany stand in the world today?

Professor Kuckartz: In terms of attitude alone, the Scandinavians and the Dutch are better. With regard to actually doing something, there are differences. We segregate our waste like nobody else in the world, but rank low when it comes to driving. And as for our readiness to pay and to donate something to environmental organisations, we are in the bottom third of the rankings in Europe. Scandinavia is once again on top, but even the English are more generous. The East European countries are at the bottom, but quite simply also because their people have less money. To sum up, we can say that the Germans are pretty well placed, but not as well as they like to see themselves.

How has environmental awareness developed in Germany?

Professor Kuckartz: It is far more advanced today than it was 25 years ago. This is because the environment has become a long-term issue and because it affects all sections of society. It is an amazing development, one that has provided a real impetus for environmental awareness overall.

What led to this development?

Professor Kuckartz: It started with the nuclear accident in Chernobyl in 1986 when all the political parties adopted aspects of the environment in their programmes. Even the companies started to open up to the issue, with environmental reporting, auditing and other such things. It was and still is ridiculed as greenwashing by some quarters, but was one of the reasons why environmental protection and environmental policy have become mass issues.

In concrete terms, what were the major milestones?

Professor Kuckartz: In the wake of Chernobyl, the environment, for the first time, made it to the top of the political agenda of the day where it remained until the end of the 1980s. But then the Berlin Wall came down and attention was diverted to completely different issues. Environmental protection as an issue went into free fall and landed at the bottom in 1998. It came back when the ‘Red–Green’ alliance in Germany approached the issue of nuclear phase-out, proving that nuclear power has a special influence on environmental awareness in Germany. And we are seeing this again today. After 1998, the issue stayed on the agenda and received a further boost in 2006/2007 with the climate debate.

You underline the role of nuclear policy. Does this mean that it has an indirect influence on environmental awareness?

Professor Kuckartz: No, it is by no means the only factor. Other issues also play an important role, the forest dieback in the 1980s, for example. The major issues in the 1990s were recycling and waste segregation. Then came the renewable energies, which welcomed wholeheartedly by the Germans. By the way, this list is all about the politics of the day. Yet there is also another important level.

What are you referring to here?

Professor Kuckartz: There were times, say around 2004, when German dailies like Die Zeit had headlines proclaiming ‘The environment is out.’ I always pointed out that the results of various studies were stating the opposite. Environmental protection was not, it is true, fashionable in politics or in the media, but there was always a latent awareness, which was strong. The surveys proved this. The further the people looked into the future and were asked about issues that would be topical 20 years hence, the greater the importance they accorded to the environment. I believe this is highly significant. The issue is firmly anchored at a fundamental level among the people and among our leaders, too. It has reached mainstream society, in a far stronger form and much earlier than is commonly believed.

In what areas do we need to take more political action?

Professor Kuckartz: In its incentives and campaigns, the German Government should pay greater attention to the social and cultural side of environmental protection. The scientific angle has dominated so far. Society is unaware of the consequences of individual behaviour. People do nothing more than take symbolic action that has a weaker impact, such as segregating waste, buying and using energy-saving light bulbs, or going on a cycling tour. They then board a cheap flight, which, in terms of CO2 emissions and other adverse environmental impacts, negates everything else. We need to think together about the connection between the large and the small steps, which we of course also need.

How can the state make things easier for its citizens?

Professor Kuckartz: It can change the infrastructure, particularly with regard to transport. We would use the bus and the train much more if conditions were different. Poor schedules, a lack of comfort, and, above all, exorbitant prices are obstacles that must be eliminated. It is therefore understandable if people prefer to take other means of transport – be it a car or an aeroplane – that are far more harmful for the climate.

Author: Torsten Schäfer

About Professor Udo Kuckartz

Professor Udo Kuckartz is Professor in Research Methodology, Department of Education, at Philipps University in Marburg, Germany. His research focuses on computer-assisted qualitative data analysis, environmental attitudes and behaviour, and environmental education. Professor Kuckartz has published seminal works on these issues and has conducted extensive studies.

May 2013

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18 May 2018

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