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The following interview of Professor Radermacher, from the University of Ulm, took place during the World Telecom Internet Days at World Telecom.

The social contract

One of your major centres of interest is the relationship between technology and sustainability. Can you explain that relationship to us?

Sustainability deals with the question of reasonable social, economic and ecological conditions. There are generally too many expectations of too many people to be fulfilled by nature and a given technology. So humans try to improve the situation by developing better technologies allowing more creation of value and services to fulfil all those needs. Historically however, while that works in a certain sense, in a feedback loop it always creates even more needs of more people, which in turn need better technology that creates even more people on a higher level of consumption, and so on. There is a difficult relationship between helping and at the same time increasing problems.

How do we break out of this vicious circle?

For all we know, the only way to get out is to build reasonable social systems that incorporate certain definite limitations that we as humans should take into account. For instance, we might agree world wide that we want to have one or two days free each week and we could incorporate that into world markets by not being allowed to create value-added on one or two days. In so doing we would dampen the production process to an acceptable limit for the environment or the social systems.

Traditionally it is government that fixes the limit. Government no longer seems able or capable of doing so. If, as you say, it is a necessary condition to fix limits, how do you fix them?

First of all, setting limits is an absolutely necessary condition. It is not directly the governments who are addressed, but having the people adhere to a social contract via governments. The problem is that we now have a global economy whereas we don't have the parallel globalisation of politics. We don't have the basis for a global, social contract. So the question becomes, what are the vehicles to get a global, social contract in an epoch with a global economy? There are three important players that have to do the right things together: governments with multilateral agreements, industry with codes of conduct and civil society, particularly non-governmental organisations, and the interplay between the three of them. This interplay is strengthened by science, media and judges. The interplay of these six actors determines our way into the future. We can only hope that enough people get enough insight into what is necessary so that in the end we jointly get a new social contract that gives back primacy of policy over economy.

One of the major problems of someone who has a vision or an understanding of things is that it is very difficult to have an impact on society so that this realisation can be integrated. It is the Cassandra effect. You are aware of the need for a social contract, but how are you personally as an individual going to make other people understand the necessity of moving towards such a social contract?

I would use a different mental image. I wouldn't think in terms of a person having and vision and then doing everything to implement it. That would be like forming a new religion. From a systems point of view, you would expect that hundreds of thousands of people who deal with this subject get to the same insight because the insight is a logical mirroring of the problems that are created. A poet once said "Where the problems grow, so do the solutions." Very often in a networked, self-organising process, hundreds of thousands of people come to similar conclusions. If all this converges, you get a wave and this wave leads to a new paradigm. The idea then is to be an agent of change in networks with a lot of other agents of change and to try to strengthen relations and make processes strong.

The Internet is thus a positive force in this networking of people with similar intuitions?

The Internet used in the right way can be a powerful instrument. If we get a snowball effect and everyone convinces only one other person a year, then you only need 33 years because two to the power thirty-three is eight billion. And the Internet can be a very important instrument in this snowball effect. Let me give you an example. The next essential step we have to take is to improve the world trade order, the WTO, by combining it with social issues and environmental issues such as the Kyoto protocol. There was an idea to extend the WTO logic to the field of investments, the so-called MAI (Multilateral Agreement on Investments). It was almost ready to be signed. Then within three of four months, an international NGO movement took the topic up and made it clear that there were problems with it because ecological and social aspects are not sufficiently addressed. This movement stopped the signing on the European side and that stopped the whole process. It shows what technology can do.

In what you say, there is a postulate that a common intuition will be found that will grow and lead to convergence. Is this a belief, a hope or an observation?

In one sense it is an observation. You just meet hundreds of people who see the world like this and there are many occasions when people acted in this direction. So putting this together gives you the idea that there is a chance for such a development. On the other hand, it is also a hope that such a movement will bring the social contract in time. Nobody can prove that. The outcome could be quite different. We might not be able to come to reasonable world-wide agreements with a result that the world community will have to pay the high price of hundreds of thousands of people starving.

The market place is increasingly geared to short term gains rather than such considerations as a social contract. Will the intuition of a large number of individuals be suficient to change the course of society against the driving force of the market place.

We have the wrong global market structure. We have a trade "order". We don't have a global market order. Trade orders are usually much less socially and ecologically constructed than a market order would have to be. We are still in a trade paradigm with the information and communication revolution, which actually made that world trade system a global market system. Technology created a world market while politics is still on a trade level. And the trade paradigm is absolutely the wrong paradigm for this global market. The consequences include short-term orientation, consumption of social and ecological capital and the destruction of important achievements. There is nothing to prevent millions of brains from understanding and thinking about what to do. In Europe, particularly, we observe considerable anger about a world global market system that is starting top destroy our social consensus. Resistance will come from this area. Our hope is that that will lead to a better global organisation.

One point is particularly import to me. Every reasonable social contract involves the co-financing of the poorer part by the richer part, not as an act of mercy but as a basis for consensus or from insightful selfishness. And only if you have this transfer can you get a stable situation. In Europe this corresponds to the so-called "structural funds". On a global scale, the real problem is whether we a re willing to co-fund states like India and China. It is here that Europeans have their problems. They suffer from the pressure the global market puts on the European social contract. It is difficult for Europe to accept that to protect the European compromise now means entering into a global social contract with co-financing for China and India.

How do you manage to redistribute wealth?

There are many ways to do so. One solution would be to take a small part of existing tax revenue. Even if taxes are diminishing, they still represent a lot. Or you could reach an agreement to add a few percent on taxes. Once you agree globally, it is not a problem for the market place because it is the same everywhere. There could be a small tax on global trade. Or there could be a small tax on financial transactions, in particular a global tax on speculation, the so-called Tobin tax. You could also have a tax on the Internet and Internet transactions. But one of the most interesting ideas is to get into fair pricing of the use of scarce ecological resources, for example the trading of CO2 emissions. Given a global ceiling on CO2 emissions, allocate each person on Earth one six billionth of it. That would be what the person is allowed to generate. Whoever wants to emit more has to buy the rights from others. As a result, the rich countries which emit ten times more CO2 per person would have to buy the emission rights from the South. In so doing they would dampen their own activities from an ecological point of view as well as creating the money flow for the South to build the social system needed and to buy the new technology needed in their countries to be more resource efficient.

Professor Radermacher, University of Ulm.
Interview, Alan McCluskey

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Created: November 5th, 1999 - Last up-dated: November 5th, 1999