The last I saw Hermann Scheer, he was walking north up a side street from Unter den Linden in Berlin. It was mid-evening in August 2009 and we’d been talking for well over an hour, seated at a small table on the sidewalk next to the Café Einstein, an establishment popular with the many German parliamentarians who keep their offices in the building across the street. He’d eaten a bowl of borscht and smoked a couple of cigarettes and explained in his gruff, thickly accented English how he’d come to be the 21st century’s most important politician (so far).
He didn’t phrase it like that, of course. He just told me how it was. Scheer was 65 years old and he’d been a member of parliament for the Social Democratic Party representing Baden-Württemberg for 29 years, and among other things he’d seen to the passing of the most important piece of public policy of our time. And so when he told you how it was, it came with its own undeniable gravity, like a war story. He didn’t need to embellish or qualify. There was no call for hype or bragging. There had been a challenge, a formidable foe, and Scheer had marshalled the troops and placed the artillery just so. And now, after another slurp of borscht, he would explain how the good guys had won – how he’d transformed Germany into the greenest industrial economy on the planet.
Scheer likened it to Fidel Castro’s strategy for winning the Cuban countryside. “The idea was we conquer one region, and from there we take the next. And in each region, we start immediately to change things. Immediately they expropriated the land of the big landlords, immediately gave it to the farmers. So people could see they work for us. Hmm? They work for us. And therefore they got more and more support by the normal people, and more and more people wanted to contribute in the fight – young people. And then it lasted less than two years, and then he reached Havana – and took it over. Hmm?”
In person over a casual dinner, Hermann Scheer was charming and forceful and funny and all the other things that meet at the right angles to create charisma and authority, but more than anything he was direct. He did not care to score rhetorical points, was not trying to redirect my biases or deflect my critiques. There was only the march.
In Scheer’s mind, the emergence of climate change on the global agenda in the late 1980s had led inexorably to the development of a simple little policy tool called a “feed-in tariff” – a financial reward for making electricity free of greenhouse gas emissions. The tariff spread like a rebel cadre in the Sierra Maestra from a small village in Bavaria to state governments to the Bundestag, and in its wake came the steady occupation of the German countryside by wind turbines and solar panels and biomass-fired district heating.
There was an inevitability to it. When Scheer’s Social Democrats and the German Green party came together to form the Red-Green Coalition government in 1998, it was only a matter of time until the policy notion became the Renewable Energy Sources Act; only a matter of persistence before it was copied from Spain to China to Ontario to Gainesville, Florida; only a question of how long before a world powered by clean energy and liberated from the menace of climate change was a fixed certainty on the horizon.
Scheer was the instrument of this inexorable change, the catalyst. He had pointed one of the world’s largest economies straight at the target and shown the way. If we all reach the goal, we will reach it in significant measure because of Scheer and his parliamentary allies and the extraordinary work they have done. In terms of building an actual, workable, manifest industrial basis for an emissions-free world, there’s likely no single person on Earth who deserves more credit than Hermann Scheer. As a backbench MP, he orchestrated the most ambitious energy policy shift of any major industrial nation. He helped disseminate the technique to more than 50 jurisdictions and counting. The world is measurably less dependent on fossil fuels because of Scheer. And so he ate his light dinner on the sidewalk looking out on Unter den Linden, and what he explained was how to become a hero in the first uncertain, uneven years of the Anthropocene Epoch.
Geologists divide the 4.6 billion year lifetime of the Earth into ages. Many of the major divisions (and subdivisions) are aligned with milestones in the evolution of life. Recently, many scientists have called for a new subdivision of the geological time-scale – the Anthropocene – defined as the time period in which human activity is the dominant cause of change in the chemistry of the atmosphere and pedosphere (soil). The term was originally coined by the ecologist Eugene Stoermer and subsequently popularized after the year 2000 by Nobel Prize-winning scientist Paul Crutzen. — Nik Harron
And then he stood up and we shook hands, and he scooped the half-empty bottle of sparkling water off the table, grasping it between his fingers by the neck. He walked off into the sunset of a lovely August night, the water bottle dangling loose from his left hand, like a cartoon Lothario carrying wine away with him to a certain seduction. Scheer would be dead from a heart attack just over a year later, and I would be left with this indelible image: a man strolling down a sidewalk in long shadows, somehow easy and loose in step despite a husky older man’s gait, carefree and oozing confidence, certain – so I’d come to think – that he’d already changed the world forever.
Such is the nature of heroism in the Anthropocene that a backbench energy policy wonk is its greatest political leader. The Anthropocene hero’s task is a slow, often thankless grind. The path is murky, indistinct. Accolades – if they arrive at all – resemble no one’s idea of a tickertape parade, and they come with a sort of arbitrary timing, before the work has begun or long after it’s done. Scheer received the Right Livelihood Award – often called the alternative Nobel Peace Prize – in 1999, the year before he marched the feed-in tariff through the Bundestag. He died in October 2010, and a year later, Germany’s electricity grid cleared the goal of drawing 20 per cent of its power from renewables, once deemed all but impossible. It aims to reach 80 per cent or more by the 40th anniversary of Scheer’s death. His passing did not make international headlines.
I have spent nearly a decade now hunting for the heroes of the Anthropocene, though I had no idea setting out that this was the nature of my mission. I started, in the early stages of research for a book that would earn the title The Geography of Hope, looking only to answer a simpler question, a sort of personal dare: Could I find solutions commensurate to the paralyzing scale of the climate change challenge? Did they exist yet? And if so, who possessed them? Who was building the world we so urgently need?
The answer, as it turned out, was not in the hands of activists or self-professed crusaders or mission-driven campaigners. It belonged to entrepreneurs, designers, politicians. It belonged primarily (though certainly not exclusively) to people inside the system itself who somehow saw the light, found new paths and moved down them in pursuit of local problems, often with more immediate concerns in mind.
Scheer never once held a cabinet level position in his own parliament, but he changed the whole world’s energy agenda. His colleagues in the ad hoc Anthropocene Hall of Fame are cut from similar cloth. They are often unassuming individuals with surprising passions, wonks and nerds and technicians, household names only in the tight circles of fellow obsessives. They are brave in the ordinary way of tenacity and strong conviction. Their speeches appear not on primetime TV but at specialist conferences. Not Al Gore, but Hermann Scheer. Not Steve Jobs, but perhaps Elon Musk, who owns a very nimble solar installation company as well as the firm that manufactures the world’s sexiest electric cars. Certainly not Frank Gehry, but definitely Rolf Disch, who designs townhouses in southern Germany that generate more energy than they use. Not JFK and Churchill but Jane Jacobs and Ray Anderson, the founder of Interface Inc., which all but invented corporate sustainability.
This is the nature of Anthropocene heroism – quiet and meticulous, strategic and practical. Jan Gehl, a genial Danish architect, took to counting pedestrians and lingerers on Copenhagen’s streets, asking simple questions about what public space is for. His straightforward conclusions have reconfigured streets and public squares from Scandinavia to Australia and back again. In New York, a Gehl acolyte named Janette Sadik-Khan became the city’s transportation chief, and in due course Broadway and Times Square escaped from the tyranny of the automobile for the first time in nearly a century.
In Ontario, a wonky lobbyist by the name of Paul Gipe, once a single-minded wind energy advocate, started talking up Hermann Scheer’s feed-in tariff in the months after the provincial government introduced its cumbersome “Standard Offer Program” for renewable energy in 2006. He made connections with the Ontario Sustainable Energy Association and then the provincial Department of Energy, and in 2009 Ontario passed North America’s most ambitious renewable energy policy.
Felipe González Márquez, Spain’s prime minister in the late 1980s and early 1990s, used his office to commission what many considered a reckless vanity project – a state-of-the-art high-speed train line from Madrid to his hometown of Seville. Twenty years later, as jurisdictions around the world fumble for the courage to follow suit, Spain – whose trains were a continental laughingstock when González came to power – now boasts one of the world’s best high-speed rail networks. While the rest of the world used an era of staggering prosperity to build empires made of financial-wizard fairy dust, Spain built the AVE. The Spanish economy is no less messy today than anywhere else, to be sure, but the trains still rocket across the Spanish plain at 300 kilometers per hour.
In Dallas, Texas, in a struggling suburb called Oak Cliff, a business improvement group and the local bike shop and a neighbourhood blog came together in the spring of 2010 to organize a street festival. But instead of balloons and bouncy castles, they laid down bike lanes and café patios and street trees, and for a couple of days Oak Cliff had an exemplary main drag that its creators called a “Better Block.” There was not an urban designer or architect in the bunch, and the budget rang in at less than $1,000. Now the Better Block’s builders work with City Hall to duplicate it all over Dallas, and a viral video about its construction has inspired dozens of Better Blocks across America. In Wichita and Oklahoma City and Fort Lauderdale, the cadres of practical Anthropocene revolutionaries have the tools and the inspiration to begin their own victory marches.
Before the term Anthropocene emerged, environmental action was built around protest campaigns and predicated on awareness. It was the domain of activists and lobbyists, and it strove for regulation, preservation, punishment and protection. It achieved extraordinary things in these realms – the creation of national parks, the salvation of endangered species, the reduction of acid rain and the repair of the ozone layer. But it has all translated awkwardly to the 21st century. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions would seem to be a process akin to eliminating the chlorofluorocarbons that depleted the ozone layer, and the Kyoto Protocol surely stood as the natural successor to the Montreal Protocol. But CFCs were manufactured by a handful of companies in a few industries, and their replacements were readily available. The mechanism was almost switch-like in its speed and efficiency.
As the Anthropocene takes shape, the climate change battle affects nearly every aspect of daily life for virtually every person, business enterprise and government body on Earth. It requires nothing less than the reconstruction of the entire foundation of the modern world. It is closer to total war than an awareness campaign. And it will be surmounted, I’d argue, not by protest movements but by practitioners of Hermann Scheer’s guerilla industrial war, the careful accumulation of allies and the liberation of this patch of countryside and then that one and then the next by wind turbines and solar panels, better blocks and high-speed train tracks, bike lanes and complete streets and mixed-use urban spaces.
Let’s revisit a parallel I’ve already made, and consider it a sort of shorthand: there is Al Gore’s strategy, and there is Hermann Scheer’s, and they are really not even the same genre of progress. Gore, though his advocacy work has been admirable, toils in the Holocene paradigm. He raises awareness, disseminates facts and arguments, inspires campaigns. He places climate change firmly in an ideological war between left and right over how to address environmental issues. (That Gore’s political opponents drove him onto that battlefield does not discount the problematic fact of it.) Scheer, meanwhile, addressed not the effects of industrial society but its causes, its engines. He understood that the climate change debate was an argument over energy policy by proxy, and that it would be solved only when the forces driving the creation of clean energy and sustainable economies had the socioeconomic power to overthrow the reigning regime of fossil fuels. It was not about convincing people that climate change was a grave environmental problem needing new regulations; it was about showing them that their brightest future lay in a society powered by clean energy.
When I sat down with Scheer at that café on Unter den Linden in 2009, there was a critical fact about his political career that I was unaware of. It was this: he was the only German MP from any party to vote against ratifying the Kyoto accord. “I am convinced,” he told me, “that the Kyoto target, the Kyoto Protocol, is a barrier. It’s a barrier. It is not a real locomotive. It’s a barrier.”
I asked why. Scheer: “The problem of these whole Kyoto Protocol climate negotiations is that they estimate steps to overcome these emissions by a shift to renewable energies – this is estimated to be an economic burden. And based on this premise, they come automatically to the burden-sharing bazaar. Automatically. And this at a global level, with countries which have very, very different economic developments. Hmm? And very, very different energy consumptions. If you would recognize that this is not an economic burden, but this creates a lot of new benefits, including economic benefits, nobody would need the treaty. Nobody would need it. It is a mental point. It is a mental point. Yeah?”
In Germany, even in 2009, it was not just a mental point, not simply a question of perspective. It was emerging reality. By then, Germany had already installed more solar power under its feed-in tariff than had existed on the entire planet as of 2005. It now repeats the feat annually. On several occasions this year, solar power alone generated 40 per cent of the electricity for one of the world’s largest industrial economies. It did so because Hermann Scheer had long prioritized solar’s role, even though other renewable energy sources were more cost-efficient in the early years of the feed-in tariff. Solar already verges on the cheapest form of new energy in many jurisdictions. Because of Germany’s renewable energy industrial revolution. Because of Scheer. Which is why, as I watched him swagger off into the Berlin night with that water bottle dangling from his fingers, I understood I was witnessing the departure of a bona fide hero.
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