A Farewell to Ralf Fücks, President of the Heinrich Böll Foundation by Cem Özdemir


He is thought leader and radical environmentalist: On 23 June 2017 Ralf Fücks was given an official farewell at Heinrich Böll Foundation by Cem Özdemir, chairman of Bündnis 90/Die Grünen.

Cem Özdemir on 23 June 2017 at Heinrich-Böll-Foundation

Ladies and gentlemen!
Dear Ralf!

According to the dictionary, a thought leader is “a forward-looking person, able to identify certain trends and developments and to influence or promote them by virtue of his or her own ideas.” According to this definition, there are probably quite a few people who regard themselves as thought leaders, including some of those present here.

Whether this is really the case, I will or cannot say, as I was invited to talk about Ralf Fücks ... and as far as he is concerned, the verdict is simple: Ralf Fücks is indeed a forward-looking person, someone able to identify certain trends and developments and to influence or promote them by virtue of his own ideas.

Ralf Fücks is a true thought leader.

Over the course of the last few years this became ever more true. To me, he is a thought leader of the left – a thought leader of the idea of sustainable prosperity for all. His philosophy is a Green philosophy, and one that has often inspired me.

Ralf Fücks has been a member of the Green Party almost from its inception (since 1982), and for him, unlike some others, it had always been obvious that the Green Party may not remain in eternal opposition but will have to become a governing party. I have nothing but a hazy memory of such debates, and I’m not sure whether Ralf cares to look back to that period.

The political career of Ralf Fücks

Between 1985 and 1989 he was a member of the parliament of the State of Bremen – and then became one of my predecessors as party chairman (a position, which back then, was still called “speaker of the executive committee”). Then, in 1991, he became Senator for the Environment and Urban Development in Bremen.

Shortly before that, there was an election in Germany, and in the run-up everybody spoke about Germany, with the exception of the Green Party, which preferred to discuss the weather. During this time, Ralf edited a book with contributions from Ulrich Beck, Otto Schily, Petra Kelly, and Antje Vollmer and titled “Can the Green Party be Saved?” … which goes to show, some debates just never seem to get old.

Ralf Fücks was involved in politics as a parliamentarian and in government. Still – and I hope he won’t be cross with me for saying so – this is not how I remember him. After all, I’ve been asked to pay tribute to Ralf’s “political work” – and this comprises, in addition to his time in Bremen and as party chair, his books, his role as a public intellectual, and as a Green politician with an eye on fundamental social and political issues. This is the role, in which he became best known to the public – and a role, I hope, he will continue to play!

Above all, I do perceive of him as a builder of bridges, bridges between politics, science, the business world, the cultural world, and civil society. This is precisely what he has done since becoming president of the Foundation in 1996. In his 21 years at the helm, the last 15 as co-president with Barbara Unmüßig, he has turned the Foundation into a think tank, and one, which is not only crucial to us Greens, but also highly regarded and respected among members of international civil society.

Many other Green Parties in other countries are envious of our Foundation. The sum of the local knowledge, as well as contacts to civil society and governments are essential for our work and the development of our ideas. And, on top of that, it’s rather cool to come across “Green embassies” everywhere we visit, when travelling abroad.

“To get involved is the only way of staying down-to-earth"

Ralf’s perspective on liberal democracy and human rights is and always has been very lucid. He has taken the Foundation’s motto to heart, “To get involved is the only way of staying down-to-earth" (Heinrich Böll). He is getting involved even where and when others are in danger of losing their perspective – be it after the fall of the Iron Curtain, be it when the Eastern European countries joined the EU, be it when dealing with democracy in Russia, or concerning our relationship with Israel or the United States.

In Russia, Ukraine, and other Eastern European countries he has always taken the side of the democratic opposition, and he has fought for freedom, including on the spot. When it came to solidarity with Israel and with Jewish communities in all parts of Europe he’s always been very clear and firm.

He has always touched on sore spots, when addressing historical amnesia, anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism, including in his own camp. And he’s never allowed the seeming intractability of the Middle East conflict to discourage him.

He’s always viewed liberty as a tenet central to Green politics, even when some Greens, fearing too great an affinity with the liberal party (FDP), tended to disagree. In such cases, Ralf would say, “Why leave the issue to them?” – and this is exactly the right approach.

Consequently, I wasn’t surprised when he recently wrote a book about the defence of liberty and open society titled, “Defending Liberty – How We May Win the Struggle for an Open Society.” This book comes at a time, when in Germany and neighbouring countries we do have to fight for liberty once again. Ralf knows that liberty is no foregone conclusion, and that even in places, where it seems to be firmly rooted, it will have to be fought for and won over and over again.

The Green Revolution

Yet, and above all, Ralf is a radical environmentalist.

As this has been misunderstood, on occasion, I would like to say a few things about his 2013 book Green Growth, Smart Growth.

This book made him a thought leader on the left, proposing a way towards sustainable prosperity for all! Public perception frequently focussed on his critique of a certain type of anti-growth sentiment, which let some to miss the books’ (German) subtitle “The Green Revolution.” This is exactly what Ralf is describing in his book and for all sectors of the economy or, to put it differently, across all areas, in which humans interact with nature.

Ralf’s criticism of the degrowth movement has made some readers deaf towards the truly radical message of this book. It is a book about massive reductions of CO2 emissions, about a Green New Deal, including a very substantial rise in investment into green technology, a radical reorganisation of agriculture, and a green transformation over the course of two decades, the like of which has never been seen before.

Painstakingly and uncompromisingly the book spells out what it means to rejig present-day societies according to the criteria of environmental sustainability … and what a giant task it is! The truly interesting and radical aspect of the book is that all of this is done with the actual, global dynamics of contemporary societies in mind.

It will not suffice to measure today’s global society against some abstract yardstick of equity – and then propose that the economies of industrial societies will have to contract by 70 percent, that developing countries may grow but a little bit, and that emerging nations will have to stop development in its tracks. There may be some who would like to see such a scenario, yet it will never happen.

If we hold on to a certain yardstick and lament that the world refuses to conform to it, then we do little to solve the world’s problems. The countries of the Global South have a legitimate right to demand prosperity. Over the last decades, hundreds of millions of people have been lifted from poverty, while many million more still live in abject poverty.

If we look at the developed societies of the North, there is no reason at all to expect that such a dramatic renunciation of prosperity and growth will ever occur, no matter what some well-meaning environmentalists propose.

Premises for environmental and climate policies

We have a giant task ahead of us. Ralf’s book faces up to the fact that we have little time left to achieve an ecological modernisation – and that it will have to succeed, nevertheless, even under present social conditions.

However, what is the exact meaning of “present social conditions”?

One of Ralf’s premises is that even when the realisation of environmental and climate policies is at stake, the end does not justify the means. Values such as liberty and self-determination are of equal importance. Whoever argues that there is no alternative will not be able to convince people in the long term. This holds true for businesses and political actors alike.

A second premise is that a market economy together with fair and operational competition has to be part and parcel of the solution. Politics will have to provide the regulatory framework on which businesses and consumers may rely, which will provide them with beacons, and which will enable them to act. The decisive element will be that we demarcate certain environmental boundaries within a market economy – with the long-term goal that all market prices will increasingly reflect the true environmental cost.

One thing is clear, no reasonable policy will be able to achieve its socially acceptable goals without regulations, ambitious safety limits, and also prohibitions. They are all part of a system with boundaries. However, it is all-important what happens within these boundaries, and here the decisive factors are creativity, innovation, entrepreneurial spirit, and courage.

And although such tasks are challenging and complex, Ralf’s book is full of optimism and a sense of what is possible – full of a sense for the creative possibilities of the human mind and for the history of social and technological innovations. Ralf’s main focus here is on technology and green innovations, because only if we make leaps of progress in these areas will we be able to solve our problems.

This is why it is so important that we work towards supporting such innovation as part of our political activity, day in and day out, and that we create a framework, promote research, stick to international climate goals and also realise them nationally, and advance technologies in crucial sectors such as energy, mobility, and agriculture.

Ecological modernisation is a central goal of our era. There’s hardly any other book except Ralf’s, which promotes this goal in such a smart, passionate, intelligible, and knowledgeable way. For this, I would like to thank him very much and, I’m sure, also in the name of many others who share in our goals.

Ralf, you’ve always been a Marathon Man, politically as well as privately. I happen to know that some years ago, your colleagues helped you achieve a dream when they sent you to the New York Marathon. Kudos! Personally, I’m an adherent of a different sport – as my gift to you will tell you (editor’s note: a yoga mat). I don’t know whether you’ll have more time now – but I hope you will.

Above all I wish you and Marie all the best for the future. Please stay the way you are! You once said, “The future is not sackcloth and ashes.” Whenever I meet you in the future, I’ll be looking forward to meeting an optimist and a thought leader!”

Translated from the German by Bernd Herrmann.