29th Mar 2023


'Emancipatory catastrophism' — why being scared works wonders

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German sociologist Ulrich Beck was an incorrigible optimist. It is unfortunate that he died early, in 2015, at just 70 years old. Beck would undoubtedly have said and written fascinating things about our current times full of turbulence, struggles and uncertainties that we have not experienced in this intensity for a long time — and how we react to them.

In his last book, Die Metamorphose der Welt, Beck came up with the term "emancipatory catastrophism".

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What he means with these complicated words is simply that sometimes humanity only moves forward out of fear for a catastrophe. Sometimes one needs a looming disaster to change what should have been changed long ago.

The current energy crisis is a good example.

In the media during the past couple of weeks, countless doomsayers predicted we will be without electricity and heating next winter and beyond. They warn us we will get cold and will not be able to pay our energy bills. Restaurants will close, businesses will stop producing, farms will go bust because cows are now milked and fed by robots and other machines that will soon cease to work.

It is noticeable that insiders with a better understanding of the hugely complex energy market in Europe, while worried, are a lot less pessimistic.

Fatih Birol, for instance, the director of the International Energy Agency in Paris, recently took issue with the narrative that Putin is supposedly winning the energy battle. The opposite is true, Birol wrote in the Financial Times: Moscow may profit from high energy prices now, but it "is doing itself long-term harm by alienating the EU, its biggest customer by far and a strategic partner. Russia's place in the international energy system is changing fundamentally, and not to its advantage."

Another myth is that Europe has too naively converted itself to clean energy in recent years and, as a result, now copes with energy shortages.

This is "an absurd proposition", Birol argues. Decision-makers in the energy sector, whom he talks to all the time, tell him the opposite: "None of them complains of relying too much on clean energy. On the contrary, they wish they had more. They regret not moving faster to build solar and wind plants, to improve the energy efficiency of buildings and vehicles and to extend the lifetime of nuclear plants."

More low-carbon energy would have helped to ease the crisis. A faster transition from fossil-fuels towards clean energy would be the best solution now.

"Never let a good crisis go to waste," Churchill reportedly said after World War Two, when the time was finally ripe for the creation of the United Nations.

Looking at it this way, one could almost say Vladimir Putin is lending us a hand by turning off the gas tap.

Europe should have increased renewables and diversified suppliers a long time ago. It should have completed its energy infrastructure, so member states could have helped each other better in a crisis.

And if Europe had collectively purchased the energy it needed, like it did with Covid vaccines, supply would have been more steady and prices would never have risen so high. The plans were there, proposed by the European Commission.

Meeting stiff resistance in big member states like Germany, they had to be shelved.

We should have decoupled electricity prices from gas prices long ago. All these things we are doing now, in haste — because Russia, who until early this year supplied 40 per cent of the gas consumed in Europe, is cutting us off.

1973 all over again

Interestingly, something similar happened during the 1973 oil crisis, not with gas but with oil: Europe purchased about 60 percent of its oil from Arab countries. When the Yom Kippur War broke out, this dependency cost it dearly.

To punish Western countries for supporting Israel during the war, oil-producing countries in the Gulf and North Africa raised oil prices and even stopped supplying some countries with oil altogether.

In the Netherlands, faced with a total oil boycott, children roller-skated on the highways that were closed for cars on Sundays. It was this crisis that started Europe's shift to gas.

In those days too, doomsayers were predicting the end of the world. Sure enough, the oil crisis was followed by a sharp recession. Unemployment skyrocketed. But of course European countries got through it.

Contrary to what some foresaw, people did not freeze to death then, either. What is clear, however, is that we learnt little from this episode — despite the obvious parallels, despite many warnings in recent years that we were becoming too dependent of Russia and would pay a price for this.

Could it be that people often only change things when there is really no other way? And that perhaps we need doomsayers who scare us with worst-case scenarios to such an extent that we finally take action?

Here's Ulrich Beck's take on it, again from Die Metamorphose der Welt: "We all know that a caterpillar will be metamorphosed into a butterfly. But does that caterpillar know it, too?"

That is the question we need to ask ourselves — not just during this energy crisis, but always.

Beck was of the opinion that the world is not going down as easily as some pessimists say — but neither can it easily be saved, as some optimists claim.

What matters, he wrote, is that we need to realise that the world is permanently undergoing transformations. And that we must keep an eye on those transformations because they form the horizon of our thinking.

When that horizon changes, it is a signal that the moment has come to act. What happened is that we failed to detect that moment, and to recognise what it meant: the inevitability of change.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a correspondent and columnist for NRC Handelsblad, Foreign Policy and De Standaard. This piece is adapted from a column in De Standaard.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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