The concept of sustainability is connected with happiness

Interview with Udo Becker

“We are already in the middle of a process of changing our mobility paradigm as a whole”, states Udo Becker at the beginning of the interview. “We are leaving the paradigm of a time when more traffic was helping to satisfy the population’s needs behind and adopting a new paradigm, where less traffic but access is better for everyone”.

That means a 180°-change of the direction of development and an awareness change in the whole society. Becker draws parallels between the women’s right to vote as a milestone in a long-term societal transition towards a mutual acceptance for the ‘new narrative’ of women participating in politics and having a voice in society. All lessons learned, and that were true for many years, are not valid anymore, but a critical mass of supporters for the new idea is crucial. Here, poorer countries are much more advanced in living sustainably than many European areas. He even further sees the key message of sustainable behaviour narratives in people’s universal and mutual longing that even leads to happiness. We do not want to become extinct but wish to pass our children and grandchildren a liveable world. That is the concept of sustainability and is connected with happiness.

The development of the last 250 years on this planet followed the concept that more is better – the more industrialisation, more transport, more speed, the more were prosperity and wealth of society growing. Becker perceives a tendency of politicians and planners to convey that into the future. A major reason for that sees Becker in the system; after they gain power, politicians often suspend their learning process and dive into a pretty closed life bubble, where they lose sight of real-world behaviour. When mayors, for instance, have learned that society’s well-being is dependent on growth, they will keep applying this paradigm to increase well-being. Meanwhile, building more roads started achieving the opposite results. Nevertheless, Becker also experiences that politicians were completely aware that they make wrong decisions, but think that the population and voters ask for even those.

The speed-paradigm is a good example: Speed is a good indicator measuring what distance you can cover in a certain amount of time. In this logic, time will be saved that can be used for other activities when speeding up. Nevertheless, whenever one can move faster, others can as well. Mobility stakeholders and built-environment react to this increased speed and will adjust accordingly; if we can drive double as fast, it will not take long, that our ways double, and the time of trips stays constant. Much more important is if the shop is in the neighbourhood, the amount of minutes to the destination is the parameter. In short words: One can have much traffic with only little mobility.

“I am very reluctant to find harsh words about other people on this planet.”, states Becker, “but for somebody insisting on the continuations of the speed paradigm, I find harsh words. This is a clear lack of intelligence, a sign of ignorance of everything learned from physics in school”.

To achieve that, everybody has different levels and domains of power and responsibility. The rule is: “Everybody should consider/take/change all actions to support sustainable development as much as possible and as early as possible – but not more than that!”. Environmental impacts are seen and felt by the population, but they also see other pressures of them. “We should not overstrain people’s scope of behaviour”, states Becker. A good example is the yellow vests in France. “What did President Macron want to achieve? He wanted to get a less unsustainable world.” summarises Becker.

“If we have an unsustainable world, who is taking the damage and the consequences first? Poorer people, because richer people could pay for a better living environment. So if President Macron and all the others would have addressed the weaker parts of society with a more convincing narrative like ‘I want to help you, I want to ensure that you can reach your shop and your job in less time and lower costs. So we want to make public transport for free but therefore increase the fuel prices to finance that’, the Yellow Vests would most likely not have felt threatened but seen. Now, the rich don’t feel an effect, and the poorer have to pay for it – that’s again unintelligent.” 

Over a lifespan, the concerns that changes impede the own favourite lifestyle. Here, the cat bites its tail because politicians are ready to change if their voters are. So even though Becker does not think that Covid-19 has a significant and long-lasting direct effect on mobility, he has learned that we need to consider options to include natural, health or political surprises in future planning. They may create windows of opportunities along the way.

To bring his sustainability paradigm to practice, he does not want to tell people how to behave but asks questions. He likes discussing and convincing people that the mutual and universal ground is to sustain a liveable world for their children and grandchildren. He wants to raise awareness for the economic truth and well-proofed concept that ‘there is no free lunch and somebody at some time has to pay for it. Becker says that he never is frustrated from those conversations but experiences much understanding and willingness to change. However, anybody can change their behaviour when all framework conditions are kept constant – if not being the president themselves.

Interviewed by Jens Schade & Lisa-Marie Schaefer, TU Dresden

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