Sociologist Philipp Staab on the climate crisis: “Living in an era of adaptation”

Sociologist Philipp Staab on the climate crisis: “Living in an era of adaptation”

We should stop pretending that we live in times of progress and focus more on the problems of the climate crisis, says Philipp Staab.

People on the street who let themselves be splashed by water fountains in bathing suits

Celebrate the climate change party while you can, or act in solidarity? Residents in Madrid Photo: Manu Fernandez / Reuters

Wochentaz: Mr. Staab, the traffic light has overwritten your coalition agreement with “dare more progress”. Is progress still a viable concept?

Philip Staab: no And the traffic light is a good example that the classic concept of progress no longer works. It has rapidly become a government of adjustment. First the pandemic forced adaptation, then war and the energy crisis did. Politics is increasingly reactive. However, the concept of progress includes the constant perfecting of social conditions. And the promise: The future is open and we can describe it like a blank sheet of paper. It’s over.

Progress was said goodbye in the 1980s, but then came back as everyday practical experience with digital technology. Isn’t progress more of a zombie – a character that never quite goes away?

The big picture is different. Sociological studies and surveys show that while people hope to improve their future and personal position, they no longer believe in improving the future of society. You can call that zombie progression.

The sociologist Andrew Reckwitz proposed a concept of progress expanded to include the experience of loss. Is it useful?

The question remains: What comes after accepting the loss? Answer: Adjusting to what is necessary for the self-preservation of society. Mourning the loss is not enough. The big warning sign is climate change. The pandemic has also shown that modern society has overestimated its control abilities. Therefore, we should stop deluding ourselves that we are still living in the era of progress. We don’t. We live in the era of adaptation. This adaptation is not passive, it requires agency. Psychoanalytically speaking, it is about accepting the reality principle after grief and developing the strengths of the ego.

When we bury progress, the question arises: What will become of the self-realization that has become the social ideal? Does she have to go to the grave? So more community and we, less freedom and me?

In these well-trodden paths of everyday rhetoric, a contrast is opened up that does not exist in this form. The liberal self-description of this society is: Self-realization is the core promise that ensures that people participate enthusiastically. I doubt it. Critical sociology captures less emphatic self-actualization than pathologies of self-expression. Inequality has been growing since the 1980s. Social advancement becomes more precarious, individual positions more insecure. There is more freedom in the world of work and life, which is experienced as a gain, but also as massive pressure. This is why exhaustion syndromes and depression are increasing. Society constantly produces excessive demands for self-realization.

Philipp Staab, born in 1983, is Professor of Sociology of the Future of Work at the Humboldt University in Berlin and at the Einstein Center Digital Future. He has written books on digital capitalism and on power and domination in the service world.

Want to say: Less self-realization is actually more freedom?

Yes, perhaps. First of all, the key is: After the danger of a nuclear war seemed to have been eliminated, we gave in to the illusion that there were no longer any systemic problems of self-preservation. That was a mistake. The question of individual self-actualization is secondary in view of the threats posed by climate change. Self-preservation can only succeed as a collective project. The consumption-centered development of the individual will take a back seat.

So, in the society of adaptation, influencers no longer exist?

Not as a ban, but as a reaction. In any case, when everyone was afraid of Corona, nobody was interested in influencers. However, I believe that in the society of adjustment there will be more collective freedoms. can i tell a story


I was recently in South Korea. After the Korean War, the south was massively deforested. In the 1950s and 1960s there were a series of floods like in the Ahr valley, with many victims. And then, during the military dictatorship, a gigantic reforestation project in which half of society was involved. At the weekend, parents planted seedlings with their children. South Korea today is more densely forested than China, India or historical Europe. In South Korea I met critical sociologists who, as students, rebelled against the military regime and are not suspected of glorifying it. I asked them about this reforestation project and the response was amazing. They looked at each other and intoned a song that they always sang when they planted trees with parents, teachers, classmates. It was an experience of collective freedom and mobilization.

What does this mean for us?

There’s a lot to think about – such as turning the Federal Agency for Technical Relief into a peace corps of adaptation, where those who help voluntarily save massive amounts of taxes. Steinmeier’s idea of ​​compulsory services also seems to me to be fundamentally correct.

The answer to the climate crisis can also be different. We continue to live as before, emitting a little less CO2 and invest a lot of money in measures to mitigate the consequences of climate change. What speaks against this selfish variant of adaptation?

It is conceivable that societies will massively expand and celebrate the party as long as possible. this is open The adaptive, solidary society will not become a paradise, but it offers opportunities.

In what way?

In crises, people look for meaningful forms of political living that give them the opportunity not to be helpless. For my book “Anpassung” I conducted interviews with systemically important people such as nurses, police officers and educators – i.e. the experts on adaptation who went to work when everyone else stayed at home during the pandemic. The result: They demand three things. There should be less inequality. That doesn’t necessarily mean: I need more money, but that society as a whole should be fairer. The fact that Jeff Bezos earns billions as a crisis profiteer while many people in the hospital bear the risk during the pandemic is considered unfair. Second: it is not acceptable for the walls in the hospital to grow mold and the plaster to fall from the ceiling. This is a criticism of the profit-oriented design of society. The third point is a critique of individual egoism and the desire for clear political control from above. This is not new authoritarianism, but the desire for functional hierarchies as a condition for everyday adaptation to succeed. Less inequality, less capitalism, more governance.

Sounds like left social democracy. But does the society of adaptation remain a democracy? Or will it become an autocracy like South Korea was during afforestation?

Our understanding of democracy will change. When people are seriously confronted with questions of self-preservation, a kind of pre-democratic space opens up. Politicization recedes into the background and technocratic functioning comes to the fore. You can also see that with Fridays for Future or Last Generation. Unlike earlier social movements, they ultimately do not demand democratization, but “lists on science” – let science rule.

How far is this society with its pre-democratic spaces from an eco-dictatorship?

If eco-dictatorship means bans, that’s basically unproblematic. In liberal democracies, a lot is forbidden. The process must be democratic. The problem of doing without and prohibition partly takes care of itself in adaptive societies. When questions of self-preservation become central – as is currently the case with energy – the question of what demand Zalando’s AI forecasts for next year is rather unimportant. We talk about lack of energy in winter and lack of water in summer. The more radically such fundamental problems are posed, the less renunciation and prohibition will appear as central problems of justice. Under crisis conditions, on the other hand, it is perceived as unfair when many people make enormous adjustments while a few make huge profits. This destroys the legitimacy of the political system.

But doesn’t a permanent emergency regime attack democracy because many areas of democratic decision-making are withdrawn?

Do democracies have to make it plausible that their political apparatuses are dealing with problems of self-preservation? It is absurd to imagine a world where individual freedom takes precedence over self-preservation. We already live in a world where the self-expression of both of us has something to do with the life chances of a child in the coltan mine in Congo. But within a polis that breaks the foundation. I can’t imagine a democracy that votes on who gets to live and who has to die. A participatory democratic regime of triage in the pandemic would be horrible. That speaks for depoliticized experts. We cease to be humanitarian democracies when we democratize issues of self-preservation in this way.

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