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Rolf Peter Sieferle  (1949-2016), who for many years had worked and written in relative obscurity, became suddenly better-known in the German-speaking world as a result of the uproar surrounding the posthumous appearance of one of his books, Finis Germania , on the bestseller list of Der Spiegel in 2017.Mainstream journalists reacted allergically to this writer’s dispassionate, even cold, assessment of the importance of historical events, an approach which Sieferle had already taken in Epochenwechsel (Change of Epochs) in 1994, where he explains the intention of his study in his Preface:
The dates 1789 and 1989 mark the beginning and end of a grand epoch. . . . The change of epoch taking place before our eyes is so chaotic that it is scarcely possible to conceive what the contours of future reality will be. And the historical moment of calm which settled on the world in 1990 is giving way to stormy weather. In this new time of upheaval, opposing fronts are arising and gradually acquiring a profile. The author of these essays wants to be understood as a neutral observer, one whose intention is to consider events in as unbiased a manner as possible and as free of prejudice as possible . . . (p. 13)
Peter Sieferle was an eclectic thinker and writer, a polymath in the tradition of Spengler and Goethe. His writing is voluminous, and like many intelligent, prolific writers, Sieferle, who at least in Epochenwechsel focusses more on theory than on specific events, runs the risk of being more swiftly judged than understood, more glossed over than read, more damned or praised than intelligently debated. In Sieferle’s case, such a risk is exacerbated by his style, which in Epochenwechsel is methodical, even mechanical, remorseless, analytical, and dry, hardly ever poetical, personal, or subjective. A small publishing house, Landtverlag, has undertaken the task of publishing his complete works in a new quality retro-style edition of ten volumes. Epochenwechsel was the first in the series to be published, and is subtitled Die Deutschen an der Schwelle zum 21. Jahrhundert (The Germans on the Threshold of the Twenty-first Century). Landtverlag is rightly proud of the standard of printing and binding of this second edition. Its thread stitching, silk-screening, high-quality paper, and fine typography make for an exceptionally smart general appearance.
In reading Sieferle, I have a strong sense that I am hampered in commenting intelligently, because reading one work may not be enough to understand the writer properly. Epochenwechsel is the only book by Sieferle which I have read, and I sense intuitively that the achievement of this earnest and remorseless thinker must be understood in its entirety to be understood properly at all. Even referring to Sieferle presents a difficulty. What was he? A thinker? A sociologist? A historian? A scientist? An ecologist? A theorist? An essayist? He was all these things, and it is important in reading Epochenwechsel to know that he was not “just” any one of them. It is characteristic of Epochenwechsel to uncover the interrelationship and interdependence of apparently unrelated themes and challenges of our epoch.
An overview of Sieferle’s professional life shows that his career prepared him for the eclectic quality of his writing. He was born in Stuttgart in 1949 and raised in Heidelberg. He attended a private boarding school and subsequently read political science and sociology at Heidelberg and Constance Universities. For a short time, he was a member of the governing board of the SDS (the German Socialist Students’ Union), and he obtained his university doctorate with a dissertation on the concept of revolution in the writings of Karl Marx, a dissertation which was later published.
Sieferle’s work at the University of Applied Science in Essen led to his being selected to study and compare the “social acceptability of diverse energy systems in industrial social development,” a study which he performed for the Ministry for Research and Technology between 1980 and 1984. Out of this experience he published a book on energy systems: Der unterirdische Wald. Energiekrise und industrielle Revolution (The Underground Wood: Energy Crisis and Industrial Revolution) which was published as a monograph by the Association of German Scientists (Vereinigung Deutscher Wissenschaftler) and published twenty years later in English. A later work was entitled Fortschrittsfeinde? Opposition gegen Technik und Industrie von der Romantik bis zur Gegenwart (Enemies of Progress? Opposition to Technology and Industry from the Romantic Era to the Present).
In 1984, Sieferle was promoted to a professorship in Modern History at the University of Constance. He contributed many articles to the popular Bild der Wissenschaft (Picture of Science), and in 1987 he was commissioned by the German Chemical Industry Association (Verband der Chemischen Industrie) to produce the monograph Wege aus der Krise? Alte und neue Muster der Technikkritik (Ways Out of the Crisis? Old and New Patterns of a Critique of Technology). In 1995, he published what he called five biographical sketches of writers of the German Conservative Revolution: Paul Lensch, Werner Sombart, Oswald Spengler, Ernst Jünger, and Hans Freyer. Sieferle’s work Rückblick auf die Natur: Eine Geschichte des Menschen und seiner Umwelt (Nature in Retrospect: A History of Man and his Environment) was published in 1997. The subtitle, Das Migrationsproblem, indicated a central tenet of the writer: Über die Unvereinbarkeit von Sozialstaat und Masseneinwanderung (On the Incompatibility of Social State and Mass Immigration).
From 1988 to 1993, Sieferle was a Heisenberg fellow for the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation), a research-funding institution which receives over three billion euros a year from the state in order to assist any scientific projects which the Research Foundation chooses to support. In 2010, Sieferle presented three expert contributions for the survey report Welt im Wandel: Gesellschaftsvertrag für eine Große Transformation (World in Change: Social Contract for a Great Transformation) for the German Advisory Council on Global Change. He was also co-editor of the professional publication, Gaia. In its obituary for him, the European Society for Environmental History honored Sieferle as one of the most important pioneers in the area of the history of the European environment.
It can be seen that this man was for most of his life very much an “insider” and a willing servant of the state. However, differences began to appear by 1994 between what Sieferle was intimating and what those who commissioned his studies and research wanted to hear. With the publication of Epochenwechsel in 1994, it became clear that Sieferle had significantly changed his social perspective. This change took him out of the comfort zone of the self-congratulating myriads of mainstream writers, researchers, commentators, and state committee and QUANGO members who depend for their livelihood on following the ideology of the German Republic. What had changed? I have heard of no dramatic “road to Damascus” conversion. Instead, it seems that Sieferle switched from being one who examined and commented on history to one who looked into the future, making social and economic projections based on logic and historical experience, and by doing so became “controversial.”
Sieferle was not prepared to portray developments other than as he saw them. He was not prepared to overlook unpleasant realities. Now he is no longer a “recognized authority” but a “revisionist,” “embittered,” and even anti-Semitic.
His name became famous as a result of the “scandal” about Finis Germania. It was removed in haste from Der Spiegel’s bestseller list when the contents of the book were remarked upon, and the magazine was heavily criticized for allowing a possibly anti-Semitic book onto its bestseller list in the first place. This reviewer had always assumed that a “bestseller” meant that a book had statistically sold the most copies, and he was not previously aware that they were in fact selected by the distributor’s own juries.
A representative for Der Spiegel explained to the Süddeutsche Zeitung in its July 25, 2017 issue that “the decision was made to remove [Finis Germania] from our lists because the book was unmistakably anti-Semitic, extreme Right-wing, and revisionist, an assessment which has already been discussed in the pages of this paper.” The Süddeutsche Zeitung itself described Finis Germania as “miserable” and “conspiracy-laden,” although strange to relate, it had been on a recommendation list (“Book of the Month”) of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, too. It was subsequently explained in the case of Der Spiegel that a maverick sub-editor bore all the responsibility for getting the book onto the list, and was made to resign from Der Spiegel‘s book jury. Doubtless he will be wearing sackcloth and ashes for many years to come.
Having switched the focus of his attention from history to working on options and projections, Sieferle applied the same rigor and remorseless honesty to his forecasts which he had applied to his historical ones. The conclusions he drew were pessimistic (a critic for the Süddeutsche Zeitung berated Sieferle for his “cynicism”) and did not harmonize with the “business as usual” mentality of “centrist,” pro-growth Western governments. I deliberately use the term “pro-growth” because Sieferle was singularly aware of the contradictions endemic to the ideology of growth, and it is crucial to Sieferle’s argument – at this point similar to that of Jean Claude Michéa, whose Notre ennemi le Capitale I have reviewed  for Counter-Currents – that the nostrum of economic growth is an inherent ideological component of a political theory of universalism. He does so with none of the sentimentality and romanticism with which most opponents of growth are associated.
Far from being romantic and poetic in the manner of a Spengler, whom he in some ways resembles, Sieferle’s analyses in Epochenwechsel are uncomfortably chill. He does not, as most socially critical writers, including writers of the political Right do, set out to insist on a fact which others “need to be made aware of,” nor does he write to give vent to frustrations which he then tries to back up with evidence. Rather, reading the pages of Epochenwechsel I felt as though I were being presented with the unwelcome conclusions of a disinterested and grim-faced medical consultant about the condition of a friend or relative. Sieferle turns in Epochenwechsel to the fields he specialized in: resources, energy use and sustainability, social trends and power relations, and projects verifiable trends – verifiable because subject to the “stress test” of impartial reason. However, he does so not so much with the statistics dear to the sensationalist, but with an assessment of the logic or lack thereof of the forces at play in the world today, forces both human and environmental in the context of both political and physical geography. As the title of his book indicates, Sieferle believes that the threshold to the new century is also the threshold to a new epoch, with major challenges to human societies, and specifically to the West, which are essentially different from the challenges of past epochs. Indeed, Sieferle’s understanding of the meaning of “epoch” seems to be that it is a time where the challenges and struggles of men are fundamentally different from those of other periods of time. The West is the center of Sieferle’s attention, and at the center of the West, Germany, which once, in another epoch, set the cultural tone of Europe, if not the world:
Up till well into the nineteenth century, Germany was the “Land of Poets and Thinkers,” an imaginary cultural power with no political unity, without economic drive, weighing little in the concert of peoples, rather the football and battlefield of other European powers. It was the culture nation par excellence, but as such, philosophically and culturally it set the tone. (p. 109)
I feel doubly hindered reviewing this book. Firstly, as I have mentioned already, Epochenwechsel strikes me as a work which needs to be assessed in the context of the writer’s wider achievement. My second feeling of disquiet is that this book throws out challenges, draws conclusions, outlines scenarios, and makes suggestions and implications, but never reaches a conclusion. The influence of German determinism is strong in this work, specifically Hegel, Marx, and Spengler, but Sieferle draws short of using the word “inevitability.” This makes his work more ominous than that of a fatalist prophesying the end of days. Again, I am reminded of a grim-faced, taciturn consultant. “I have shown you the facts, draw your own conclusions.” As Sieferle himself states, he proffers no resolution of any dilemma nor settlement of any looming contradiction; all he wants to do is to draw attention to them. It is as though a physician has provided a detailed and ominous diagnosis, but when asked to prescribe a cure, protests, “That is not my job.”
Epochenwechsel provokes argument and thought in order to clarify what is being said, but does not provide much argument, and its thought is only the thought of a logician. In other words, this work can be summarized as “invitations to discussion” or “setting up my workshop on the social changes of a new epoch.” Therefore the book is hard to judge, for just as poems should be heard before they can definitively be judged, or a theater play performed, so I feel that this book should first be the subject of a workshop, a group task, a “brainstorming” before it is assessed. It should not simply be read and understood (or in the case of establishment media, not understood), it should be the focus of discussions and group studies. This sense that I had is partly attributable to Sieferle’s background in science and practical studies. His career must have required him to organize many presentations and workshops. Epochenwechsel is not a polemical call to arms, nor an impassioned plea, rather it is the representation of findings in terms of interacting cultural and material developments. One is reminded in this respect of Oswald Spengler, who also wrote in terms of epochs, cultures, and cultural parallels; but one is struck by a major difference, too. Oswald Spengler wrote lyrically. Sieferle is an anti-poet. He is lacking in any sensibility whatsoever for a higher being of any kind, be it Fate, Providence, or God. Even Nature seems only to exist by interacting with people. Epochenwechsel ignores the ineffable, the spiritual. If Spengler’s template style is this: “Such according to the unchangeable natural will of growth and decline will fatally come to pass,” Sieferle’s is this: “Given these circumstances/trends projected to this point, caused by these contradictions, all things being equal, it can be expected that such will in the future be so.”
It can be seen that Epochenwechsel does not make for easy reading. It is not that the language is especially complex, nor is Sieferle’s subject matter abstruse or obscure. Epochenwechsel is difficult because the writing is that of an analyst, a remorseless inquirer who is not prepared to relax to relate an anecdote or illustrate with a colorful example taken from life. The book lacks outrage, admiration, or a subjective undertone, “prejudice” which might attenuate the oh-so-rational analysis. To pursue the analogy of the physician: This is a remorseless consultant’s explanation to a patient of the meaning of long-awaited tests. The results are not encouraging.
“Liberalism failed, major paradox between cosmopolitanism and particularism, failure of national state, rise of tribalism, exhaustion of natural resources, and above all, Mrs. Gaia, I am afraid the demographic graph is showing a constant increase in population pressure.”
“Doctor Sieferle, please, tell me the worst.”
“I think I have made the situation abundantly clear. The universalistic optimism which your husband’s body has accumulated has stimulated a dangerous high hyper-population reaction in the spleen. His bodily resources are under contradictory pressures. We may soon be observing convulsions in the upper torso and damage to the liver. Furthermore . . .”
Sieferle, like all cautious and unemotional physicians, shies away from spelling the grim prognosis out in fatal words, but his message implies that there is little more that we can do, assuming we want to. Without radical change, the West as we know it will buckle under too much material, ideological pressure, and contradiction.
Epochenwechsel is divided into seven chapters: “Zeitenende und Zeitenwende” (“End of Times and Time Changes”), “Deutschland Fin de Siècle, Vernunft oder Leben” (“Fin de Siècle Germany: Sense or Life”), “Der Prozess der Globalisierung” (“The Process of Globalization”), “Die Politisierung der Technik” (“The Politicization of Technology”), “Fronten der Umweltpolitik” (“Fronts of Environment Politics”), and “Die Grenzen des Universalismus” (“The Limits of Universalism”).
In his Preface, the writer acknowledges that the task he has given himself of predicting the change – and the nature of the change – from one epoch to another is a much harder task than the short-term prediction of, say, the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union. Sieferle insists that he is not making statements of “inevitability,” but rather is outlining the appropriate questions to ask from the point of view of social, economic, cultural, ecological, and political understanding. In his Preface, Sieferle insists that the fundamental problems of today which from past experience we can project into the future are “widely known” (allgemein bekannt). Sieferle lists them: the world-wide structural change in means of production; the control of technical development; the challenge of ecology and mass human migration to what he calls, with emotionless sobriety, “prosperity zones”; and the social and ideological convulsions which accompany such epochal shifts. Sieferle describes himself as a “neutral observer” of these trends, one who seeks to observe and comment on developments without bias or prejudice of any kind. Sieferle’s quotation from Spinoza sums up his approach: “Non ridere, non lugere neque detestare, sed intellegere” (I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, not to hate them, but to understand them).
Already in the first chapter of Sieferle’s book, the reader is reminded of the subtitle. Despite the absence of any apparent emotion about his nation in the entire work, Sieferle has chosen to focus on Germany and the Germans for the purposes of his analysis of an epochal shift, a fact to which the subtitle of his work already points. It can be argued that Sieferle is best able to argue from examples with which he is familiar, those being of his own country, but the impression this reviewer has is that the unemotional candor of the book, its apparent and proclaimed objectivity, conceals a forceful emotional commitment and association with the country in which he was born, that Heimat which is close to the writer’s (horribile dictu) heart.
Sieferle believes that the horrors of the last century were unleashed by the massacres of the First World War and the resulting opportunity which the confusion and societal tumult caused by that war gave to individuals (a nod in the direction of Hitler, Lenin, and Mussolini) to obtain power which in normal circumstances would have been denied to them. Even the notion of a “total Cold War” was, according to Sieferle, foreshadowed in the Great War. Sieferle points to the paradox that the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of a challenge where it had thought itself inevitably the victor, namely in the rationality of centralized means of production.
The stronger forced the weaker to do his bidding and the stronger showed himself to be, as always in modern history, the one who was in a position to spend the last escudo. (p. 81)
This is typical of Sieferle’s style: cutting, cynical, and determined to find the truth wherever it may be hiding and behind whatever cosmetic disguise. It is also characteristic of his writing to disclose contradiction and paradox. Here, it is the contradiction in the Marxist belief that the complete centralization of the means of production ensures the most rational, and therefore inherently most productive, system. Here is Sieferle on what he understands to be an inherent contradiction of Marxism:
The fundamental thesis of the Marxist theory of history . . . lies in the belief that the challenge of equity can be solved in the same way as the challenge of economic rationality. Once the variety of the world disappears, so will control of nature increase. The new productive strength represented by the binary subject of history, the proletariat, emerges through the totalization of social and economic rationality. Increasing equality and rising wealth will be inextricably linked once the idiosyncrasy of the particularism of private property has been abolished.
This disquieting, indirectly critical presentation of Marxist utopianism written in Marxist language, by a man who had himself written a book on Marx, is then followed by the sociological, scientific diagnosis:
A brief consideration, easy enough to make today, shows such a link to be in no way inextricable. There is every reason to suppose that the rule of reason in the sense of comprehensive planning of the morphology of man and nature could be set up by a bureaucratic despotism and that such despotism might be understood in Marxist terms as a higher social order. If it is the case that human history is the accumulation of rationality, this could well be represented by a benevolent minority. But in that case, “reason” and “virtue” would not necessarily be interlinked. The promotion of socialism and equality would then again require special ethical justification, without a historical philosophical guarantee to it. Socialism would then be back to the old, eternal zero-sum game of straining to gain power and status. (p. 77)
This is powerful, insightful, and profound. And readers will understand what I mean by saying that this writing is an invitation and not a conclusion.
Of the Soviet Union, Sieferle speaks of the “detachment of equality from efficiency” (p. 78) in face of the startling success of capitalism and the failure of the Marxist prognosis of capitalism’s collapse, so that by the 1970s, the bureaucratic elite were “obsolete to a degree that their demise could only be a matter of time.”
Where Sieferle writes about the past, there is nothing apart from perhaps his remorseless style of a scientific investigator to distinguish him from many Western journalists who are wise after the event. However, the greater part of Epochenwechsel is not taken up with a consideration of the past, but with a look to the future, using the same tools of deep analysis of the mechanics of ideas and developments, and completely ignoring the wishful thinking of either cultural pessimists (wishful thinking in the sense of deriving satisfaction by assuring readers that events will prove them right) or cultural optimists (“humanity will find a way out”, “it isn’t as bad as it looks”, etc.).
Sieferle proceeds to analyze cultural relativism, the rise of what he calls “particularism,” the striving to accentuate the particularities that define a group. This is a complex issue which Sieferle looks at in some depth. Summarized extremely simply, he notes that the decline in the Western sense of national particularity which naturally corresponds to the advance of the philosophy of universalism, Ubi bene, ibi patria (Home is where you feel good) – universalism as an ideology and universalism in its economic manifestation as the heartily embraced globalism – means that authority in Western states, where once the state held a monopoly of power (Leviathan) is tending to give way to the authority of the tribe or band (Behemoth). Provocatively, Sieferle asserts that “the sea change in global perspectives in 1990/1991 was not so much the victory of liberalism over socialism as the victory of particularism over universalism, recognizable by the fact that the collapse of the Soviet Empire was the collapse of the last colonial power” (p. 88).
Sieferle, with the nearest he comes to humor, dismisses the notion that history is coming to an end by comparing history to a busy mole: “The mole of history only makes a pause in his tunneling before carrying on” (p. 105).
A key element of the book is Sieferle’s insistence, typical for the consciously anti-romantic, anti-religious writer that he is, that for the stability of orientation in life (Orientierung im Leben) – and to know the orientation in life of a society’s members, he insightfully notes, is crucial to understanding the reason for social stability and social mutation – depends on how plausible or implausible something appears rather than on how true or untrue it is. Plausibility, hints Sieferle, acquires weight the more it can gain acceptance. He continues:
From these objections and difficulties it becomes clear that the dominant culture of today, systemic hedonistic mass culture, cannot be criticized from the position of ethical normatism, or at least this once much-loved ethical challenge is fighting a lost cause . . . (p. 200)
The real challenge for this writer lies in the question as to what extent the system currently in place will prove itself capable of self-perpetuation and self-stabilization in the face of crises of its own creation:
It is no longer pertinent to know whether hedonistic material mass culture is an unattractive proposition, a grotesque banquet of fools, or a Satantic left-hand turn. The only thing still interesting is to know the extent to which it contains self-destructive tendencies within itself. (p. 200)
Sieferle argues that such self-destructive elements are present twofold in the universalistic system of international capitalism and the ideology of growth: the first, the economic and demographic dynamics of our time, which could lead the world to a complete breakdown in the universal capitalist system. The technical, economic, and demographic dynamics which have been released will bring the world to a point that the parameters of the very system which first created those dynamics will be destroyed. This is the core of what is glibly referred to as “environmental issues.” The second is that it is responsible for what he calls “the release of the Dionysiac individual” (p. 200). (Sieferle seems to be amusing himself at Nietzsche’s expense here!) This Dionysiac new man will prove sadly incapable of meeting the hefty challenges arising from increasingly acute environmental challenges, unwanted choices, and disasters. The Dionysiac Untermensch will be sunk by his own effluence and affluence. Individuals of this cast are too primitive to know how to cope with the problems the system which allowed them to flourish has subsequently thrown up for them to deal with. (A glance by this reviewer at fellow travelers on the local regional train gives some credence to Sieferle’s thesis!) Sieferle is careful to eschew certainties here. He prefers to write suggestively, in that sense more cautiously than his theoretical predecessor Karl Marx, who claimed to have discovered inherent contradictions within capitalist logic and practice which would lead inevitably to the seismic shift of power out of the hands of the minority bourgeoisie into the hands of the majority proletariat. Sieferle projects plausibility, not certainty.
The premise of Sieferle’s claim can be easily observed in the West: the lack of health of the population as a whole, a rapidly falling general level of intelligence which requires no statistics as evidence (although such statistics do exist), the impoverishment of the environment which goes hand in hand (and the relation is hardly coincidental, of course) with the personal enrichment of the individual and the individual’s expectation to be given the “right” to a consumption-intensive way of life, and the obsessive humanitarianism which seeks to save and maintain individual human life at whatever cost and as long as possible regardless of the strain this puts on the natural environment. This last point is evidenced on the one side by welcoming and defending mass immigration and on the other hand by the obsessive desire to draw out life with the use of advanced technology of each individual life as far as possible, into senility and even beyond. The system, as Sieferle observes, is tumbling into moral and natural circumstances which, as he formulates it in the thought-provoking, complex, ironical manner typical of this work, “makes a self-stabilizing mechanism to overcome its explosive transformative phase rather improbable” (p. 201).
“Liberalism” is a notoriously changeable and unclear word. Sieferle does not use it much, either in praise or criticism, but he does point out that the liberalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is no more, for that liberalism, he says, was an integral part of a structured society of which little remains. The old liberal order was one which sought to preserve certain social competencies and associations, as in for example the right of the propertied over the non-propertied, and is in stark contrast to the hedonistic liberalism of the twenty-first century. Bourgeois liberalism also had a unique style. Sieferle underlines what he calls the Stilumbruch (change in style):
The real achievement of the cultural revolution lies in a change in style in everyday life, which passes easily into the systematic culture of today. Despite all the Americanism, the culture of the ‘50s [in Germany] offered a continuation of the popular culture of National Socialism, if not of the ‘20s. It would perhaps be not too much to assert that the entire period from the beginning of the twentieth century to the 1970s carried a stylistic unity . . . The same with fashions, especially men’s fashion: suit and tie appear towards the end of the nineteenth century and began to disappear from the beginning of the 1970s . . . More significant still is the disappearance of headgear. The disappearance of the hat confirms the old culturally critical diagnosis that, with the decline of bourgeois culture, a rich and deep-rooted tradition collapsed . . . More examples of the change of style can be listed: “modern” culture and architecture . . . enthusiasm for technology, space exploration, faith in progress . . . the romanticism of the popular song supplanted by orgiastic rhythmical rock music . . . the decline of conventions replaced by increasing informality, the disappearance of the earnestness and assiduousness of “culture” . . . the self-assurance of technical civilization which began to set up its monstrous monuments in the sixties . . . (pp. 149, 150)
This is insightful but dogmatic to the point of ignoring counter-currents. It is simply wrong to speak of “the popular song supplanted by orgiastic rhythmical rock music.” On the contrary, country music and popular music have held up well against the challenge of rhythmical rock music. This is one of several examples of the writer’s tendency to occasionally make dogmatic and debatable, or even obviously erroneous, assertions as though they are widely acknowledged fact, in stark contrast to his promise that he is merely going to report on trends and events, making objective projections from them. Sieferle announces sudden breaks in epoch, style, or culture, whereas in fact, many cultural changes do not take place abruptly in the way he describes, and not without resistance.
Another example of dogmatic, and in my opinion unverifiable and at best questionable, claims can be found in his discussion of the environmental crisis, where he states:
The current environmental crisis is primarily a matter of human culture, even when it leaves manifest traces in non-human nature. In radical ecological writing (ökologistisiche Betroffenheitsliteratur), much has been said about mankind’s self-destruction, impending suicide, and fall. On closer examination, however, we can see that that is nearly impossible (so gut wie unmöglich). Mankind as a species is not to be found in the range of “fall of” scenarios. Humans are intelligent generalizers, capable of surviving in practically any ecological system of the world. Homo sapiens is practically indestructible. Along with rats and multitudinous species of insects, humans would probably survive an atomic war or even an extraterrestrial collision . . . (p. 337)
Really? I do not have the writer’s scientific training, but I am still fairly sure that the use of the entire nuclear arsenal at the disposal of mankind might make the continued survival of our species more than a little problematic. Elsewhere, Sieferle claims that there have been many mass exterminations in the variety of the planet’s fauna and flora, so there is nothing exceptional (or even exceptionable?) about the one that has just been triggered by the population explosion of Homo sapiens. There have been other dramatic collapses in the variety of animal and plant species on the planet before the arrival of man, but not many. Sieferle surely knows this very well. Assuming Sieferle is not intentionally misleading his readers, it is astonishing that someone with his experience, knowledge, and intelligence should have made such a statement. At the very best, he can be accused with being occasionally cavalier when presenting very important facts and figures.
Sieferle the writer is in constant danger of becoming Sieferle the dogmatic presenter, but in contrast to the audience at a presentation, the readers of a book cannot draw the writer up and say, “What is your evidence for this?” In this passage and elsewhere I felt that there is a subjective engagé waiting to escape from the shell of the hatchet-faced man of science. Perhaps in a corner, Sieferle the professional dispassionate consultant breaks down and weeps.
This does not distract from the principle, however, which is that industrial society is created with what Sieferle calls a “gentle apocalypse” (sanfte Apokalypse). Like Stilumbruch, sanfte Apokalypse is an expression likely to linger in the memory because it brilliantly encapsulates a complex truth. In this respect there is undoubtedly an advantage of reading this writer in German. Some of the subtleties of Sieferle’s often arresting and unusual choice of words, which rely heavily on a German philosophical tradition of long combination words pregnant with implication and nuance, would be lost in translation.
Sieferle goes on to argue that the democracy which today represents “human values” and is supposedly liberal, is nudging closer to the absolute state, not despite the isolation of the individual but because of it:
In both cases [of democracy and totalitarianism] the old relation of liberal personality and bourgeois society is replaced by the novel relationship of atomized individual and systematic society . . . The post-liberal democratic individual, identifying with the democratic system, comprises a highly complex and ever-moving compromise between the excessive hedonism of the Dionysian individual and an instrumental discipline, which allows for an exact calculation of means and ends. (p. 223)
What National Socialism, Communism, and modern democracy have in common, according to Sieferle’s provocative analysis, is that they seek a solution to the challenge of Behemoth in a society where – and here Sieferle surely is true to his debt to Marxism – capitalism has extirpated old hierarchies, allegiances, and faiths. Sieferle frequently refers to the Leviathan very much in the Hobbesian tradition. The Leviathan is the state created out of necessity in the form of a social contract. (It occurs to me at this point that while Sieferle is many things, he is no anthropologist: there is no suggestion that a state may grow biologically and organically, which is the obvious and oft-mooted critique of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, who insisted that the state is created by social contract; Sieferle seems to take the notion of the social contract on board with no regard to the traditional critique of this model.) This ensures that society functions by guaranteeing the security of the citizens in return for granting to the state a monopoly of the right to employ violence. The metaphorical figure of another Hebrew monster, the Behemoth, is also used by Sieferle, so far as I am aware originally, to refer to the power of the strongest in a society where there is non-existent or ineffective central authority. Favoring one or other legitimacy will depend on the individual’s own circumstances. Sieferle draws on extreme cases to make his point: a prisoner under a dictatorship favors the uprising led by inspiring and fearless rebels to overthrow the regime; the citizen living in a state of anarchy yearns for the ruler with the iron heel. As one wag put it: “The conservative is a liberal who has been robbed in the street, the liberal is a conservative who has been beaten up by the police.”
We live in a dominant culture of valuing individual human life above all else. Individual human life must be extended as long as possible and this is the highest priority. In view of this, there is no posture which can enable the individual to overcome his or her fear of death. According to the old analysis, which Sieferle follows, such weak civilizations as those based on hedonistic individualism are doomed to collapse in the face of barbarians who are drawn to the luxury of the decadent society and can easily overthrow it. This vision has been fairly standard fare in reactionary and nationalistic narratives, but Sieferle, with that originality of thought which makes him outstanding, does not stop there. Pursuing the obvious end that the contented man should be the last man means that hedonistic universalism is equipped with the impulse to eradicate the barbarians not by military action, but by means of homogenization and universalism.
However, such an attempt in turn may itself be stymied by the ecological consequences of the West’s success: the more that potential barbarians are pacified, the more they flourish with the assistance of technology and knowledge (medical assistance, for example, and the combating of disease), and aspire not to conquer directly but to a standard of living comparable to that of the West. The non-white world wages war not so much with panga or bomb as with “demands for justice” and birthrates. Each “world citizen” wants to have the money to buy his own car rather than rob someone else’s. But the world cannot take that strain. The ecology of the world will break down, unleashing a catastrophe which will in turn destroy the hedonist universalism which currently dominates global material aspirations. The old order is overrun rather than overthrown. Sieferle quotes Matthias Horx: “How can a society which is thoroughly soft tackle the hard problems of the future?” (p. 233).
In Chapter Four, Sieferle notes what he calls the “creeping up” of globalization, a development which is gradually acquiring a profile. In the age of globalism, national economies have become one more part of the world market.
The world market is no longer the result of interaction of specific national economic units, but the reverse today is true: individual national economies are the result of differentiation within the global market. (p. 253)
Economies are supranational and increasingly free of national restraint. In the global economy, the successful firm is a lean firm with lean management and a reduced workforce. Labor-intensive aspects of business are outsourced. Sieferle sees humanistic values in the West challenged by what he regards as one of the two most significant developments of our time (the other being ecological disaster), namely the collapsing of natural and national borders.
It is probably Sieferle’s cool-headed analysis of the development of mass immigration and its logical consequences which has created the most dismay among upholders of the system of universalism, to employ Sieferle’s own kind of language. Ever poised to spot a contradiction within a system of thought or ideology, Sieferle hammers home the point that the social state, the state which protects its workers, its sick, and its retirees, cannot survive a policy of millionfold immigration. Logically, if all men are equal, there is no reason and no fairness in the notion that a street worker in Berlin, to take Sieferle’s example, should receive more money and more benefits than a street cleaner in India. Equally, if individuals in principle have the “human right” to live in the West, if one individual is granted that right (and millions have already been granted just such a right), there is no logical basis for rejecting the next migrant. The logic at this point conflicts with the rationality of allowing millions (five hundred million, perhaps? This is only a small percent of the population of Africa) into the prosperous zones. Either rationality and the West gives way, or the current humanist consensus gives way.
It is significant that not one commentator on Sieferle, so far as I am aware, has expressed an opinion on Sieferle’s outlining of this contradiction. There is only silence. Sieferle notes in passing that the collapse of the socioeconomic basis of the nation-state as autarchy has undermined the possibility of creating a national socialist state. Capital has long since fled the one land to become the wanderer without a country. For Sieferle, neo-liberalism and national socialism are the two extremes between which a realistic (realpolitisch) society of the future must be erected – “must” not in a moral sense, but in a rational and realistic one.
Sieferle does not ignore or belittle a challenge, indeed a crisis, which has been, for dubious historical reasons, largely the preoccupation of those who themselves laud, or at least accept, the very humanist culture which is causing so much of the problem in the first place. In the sixth chapter, Sieferle suggests that the epoch making change in human history of recent years was not, as many claim, the collapse of the Soviet Union, an event which Sieferle regards as merely the confirmation and fulfillment of a long-term trend (rather as the collapse of a dam is itself not so much the noteworthy event from an analytical or technical point of view; it is the first irreparable visible weakening caused by structural failures arising before the visible signs of impending collapse appear). For Sieferle, here in entire agreement with the most radical of internationalist ecologists and flying in the face of orthodox Right-wing dogma, the epoch-marking event was the publication of Limits to Growth by the Club of Rome in 1973. It was, claims Sieferle, the starting signal to create a subject of political and public awareness of a crisis which had been foreseen and warned about for years. Then, Sieferle writes remarkably and radically:
The thought of a threatening environmental crisis has dealt a death blow to the liberal project of global modernization at the very moment when many thought it had achieved ultimate victory. (pp. 330, 331)
At the heart of what Sieferle indicates as a humanist environmental death ride is the fact that nature at the close of the last century no longer stands before us as inexhaustible, eternal, and constant, but instead as a “fragile machine” which can be destroyed by clumsy use, an image crystallized in the expression “Spaceship Earth.” Noting that most writing and commentary on environmental issues places “man” at the center of the issues discussed, Sieferle insists that there is no such thing as abstract “man” in relation to environmental issues. This strikes me as a profound and necessary observation. The very concept of “man” unrelated to a system or standard of living, or cultural or economic status or expectation, is unreal, abstract; an ideological construct.
The French New Right has repeatedly criticized the abstract concept of “man” in terms of human rights. But precisely here I feel that Homo sapiens is universal, as a biological species, not at all an abstraction. The Tutsi villager, the American prisoner, anyone who undergoes mistreatment or torture regardless of race or culture, who suffers from disease, or who undergoes physical distress, undergoes an experience which is common to our species. It is not in the animal senses of pleasure or pain, want and satiety that “man” is an abstraction, but in the area of culture, albeit that culture may be biologically influenced or even determined. It is there that the notion of “man” becomes abstract, not in the area of specific physical rights, regardless of whether such rights should prevail or not.
Biologically, people are animals (Homo sapiens) which will do anything to survive as individuals, because this is what individual humans, like all individual mammals, are programmed to do, but the expectations of people as beings with a concept of time, history, and fate, that is to say people as more than just animals, are linked to their culture and environment. It is precisely the universal system of growth, the relentless humanism of globalizers, which has created a fictional “man,” equipped at birth with “inalienable human rights” with identical aspirations and claims to the privileged and well-fed people of the “prosperity zones.” Put simply, the West, or if one prefers, international capitalism, bears an immense responsibility for environmental crises, because, as capitalists are bound by nature to optimize profits and expand, to grow, in a global environment, they have inevitably raised the expectations of the world’s population of Homo sapiens higher than the ecological system of the world can hope to bear. This view recalls that of Garret Hardin:
Wherever one seeks to draw a line [Grenze ziehen – a pun in German on drawing a line and creating a frontier], one comes into conflict with the principle of humanitarian universalism, because the first immigrant to be turned away could insist that his case is only different from . . . that of the last migrant to be admitted, a matter of chance. . . . Since such logic applies to each individual immigrant, no politically-defined limits to immigration can be extrapolated from universalistic principles. So one arrives at a logical dilemma, one which corresponds structurally to Garret Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons. We know now that there are no simple solutions to such challenges; it is difficult enough to detach oneself from familiar and trusted prejudices in order to consider the problem soberly and dispassionately. (pp. 418, 419)
Sieferle does not believe in an abstract “man” as destroyer of an abstract “nature,” nor does he believe in an often implied pre-industrial harmony and interaction of “man” and “nature,” a pre-Lapsian garden. At one point in Die Umweltkrise, Sieferle’s argument becomes disingenuous. He points out that, from a higher perspective (assuming the evolution of the planet millions of years before Homo sapiens existed), the massive destruction of species was nothing unusual (most scientists speak of five mass extinctions in the past and the sixth caused by man, now underway) and “seen from the perspective of nature, there is no such thing as the ‘destruction of nature,’ but rather the modification or transformation of natural conditions” (p. 336).
As already mentioned, someone with Sieferle’s considerable experience, knowledge, and intelligence must be aware, firstly, that the mass destruction of species is by no means a frequent occurrence in the history of the only planet to date for which we can chronicle a zoological history, and secondly, when anyone speaks of destruction of the environment, the reference is to the destruction of a qualitative environment as it is experienced by human beings and/or other life-forms, and not the environment in the sense that the planet is set to exist in identifiable form with some kind of environment, even lifeless, in a given solar system orbiting a given star. Finally, to belittle the destruction of the environment as “the modification or transformation of natural conditions,” i.e. material composition, is at once a worthless platitude (does anyone suggest that matter itself vanishes when the environment or a species inhabiting it is destroyed?) and entirely ignores the fact that “development,” a valued-loaded expression if there ever was one, consists certainly in the destruction industry, of a shift from living to dead material, and that precisely this, this very point which Sieferle so high-handedly calls “transformation,” is at the very core of a radical critique of the politics of growth, namely that it transforms living matter into lifeless matter. Sieferle has replaced one hypocritical word, “development,” which globalists use, with his own, “transformation,” no less deceptive and euphemistic. If Sieferle is ignorant of this focal concern of environmentalists, to hinder the progress of the monoculture of death, then he ignores a major driving force both of the internationalist system he critiques and the apprehension felt by the increasing numbers of its skeptics, critics, and opponents.
Sieferle, however, is far from arguing that there is no environmental crisis. The sixth part of Epochenwechsel, fifty-six pages long, is on the “fronts of environmental policies,” a strange title underlining Sieferle’s view of environmental policy as an important element of political struggle. He considers the environmental crisis in its cultural context as a challenge to the humanist internationalism of the optimistic world of unlimited universal growth. The culture which has reached crisis point is the expanding industrial system, a system in which “growth” is the accepted aim and acknowledged as such by an overwhelming majority of journalists and politicians.
It becomes clear why Sieferle regarded the publication of Limits to Growth as epoch-making: not because of the message it had about the future of the natural environment, but for the message it had for global capitalism as a political ideal. His critique is not so very far from that of the Left which hijacked the Green movement decades ago, and has bent it into a critique exclusively of the West rather than a critique of Homo sapiens as a species. Sieferle does differ from the traditional Left-Green critique in one crucial respect, however, and this is that he faces up to the challenge of the planet’s exploding human population. In fact, his awareness of the population bomb is key to his understanding of the environmental challenges facing human societies. The world cannot accept unlimited population growth and maintain a living standard of hedonism of the kind enjoyed by the citizens of the centers of prosperity today. It is physically impossible. The underlying belief of the promoters of growth is, needless to say, that it is not impossible. Globalism is a project of unmitigated optimism about the abilities of humankind to cope with every possible environmental challenge. This culture of growth is on a project of self-destruction. This specific culture of growth and expansion is in “self-destructive conflict with its natural environment” (p. 337).
A key element of this culture is speed. Speed plays an important role in natural gestation and cycles, of course, and the acceleration of the process of consumption is an aspect of a process detrimental to the environment seen from a biological perspective. I am not aware that other writers commenting on ecological issues have stressed this, at least not since Richard Katz’s Drei Gesichter Luzifers (Three Faces of Lucifer), which was published back in 1934. Then there is the aspect, perhaps influenced by “New Right” thinkers, that human beings have, through their system of global growth, created a global monoculture which is from an objective evolutionary perspective “a perilous procedure” (p. 338). If the global monoculture, as Sieferle calls it, is “perilous,” one may ask perilous to whom or what? He himself has dismissed the idea of an abstract “nature” and abstract “man,” and furthermore stated, without argument, that Homo sapiens can survive everything it devises to undermine itself. Be that as it may, Sieferle’s environmental weather forecast is “gale force eight”: the ever-expanding world population and the growing demand for higher living standards, declining resources, and sources of energy will be too much for technical innovation. This will then be followed by “sustainable development,” which Sieferle himself places in quotation marks, noting with the grim realism characteristic of this writer, that it will “doubtless lead to a metabolic level [this is presumably Sieferle the scientist’s amusing term for standard of living!] which lies demonstrably below those levels currently prevalent in the industrialized countries” (p. 341).
There is no mention of the rest of life here. Do only humans matter? It would seem so. Sieferle’s entire approach is anthropocentric. He obviously has no sympathy for deep ecology. The appeals of those who urge “man to change his behavior” in order to “save creation,” Sieferle sneers, have the same function as prayers and will achieve as much. The environmental crisis, Sieferle insists, is a crisis of the free market economy. This echoes Marxist theory and is false, at least if what is meant is that the causes of the crisis lie in the free market economy. There is no evidence that planned economies manage environmental standards better – quite the reverse – but perhaps the writer means that the environmental crisis is a crisis of the free market economy in that it is a major problem for the free-market economy. Either way, the solution is “essentially collective and general, which means it is political.”
Sieferle rightly insists that quality of the environment is not a matter of personal choice, although I would modify his statement by adding that it is not a question of personal choice alone. We are individually quite capable of influencing the environment for better or worse. Even so, it is true that the crisis has reached an extent where strong-handed political measures are necessary to solve it. The level of accommodation with a natural environment will be the measure of a strong will, and this is in crass contradiction with any free-market economic system. This reviewer has an example to hand of the necessity for central authority in environmental questions: a friend of his was the manager of a leather processing plant which polluted the local river with toxins that could be filtered, but only at great expense. The filters were actually mandatory by law but were ignored by all leather-producing plants. The manager told me that the company dared not to introduce the expensive filters without the assurance that the competition would be likewise compelled to follow suit, otherwise their competitors would gain a price advantage. So I asked him, “What would you say if the government enforced the law for mandatory filters in all leather factories with harsh penalties for law breakers?” “Excellent. No problem with that whatsoever. In fact, it would be a good thing. No one likes polluting rivers. It’s just that we can’t risk giving advantage to the competition, and the government is frankly too weak to enforce the law. Local authorities are corrupt, you see. They look the other way.” The same argument about a “level playing field” for competition can obviously be said, and has been said, about goods produced outside Europe which do not conform to European environmental standards. The way to counter unfair competition is either to reach international standards or impose import tariffs to compensate for the “unfair competition.”
Sieferle provides a cogent critique of modern socialist proposals for ending, or at least halting, the deterioration of the environment. The call for more, or maximum, freedom for the individual, which is also part of modern socialism’s program, is in sharp contradiction with the call to restrict the leeway given to entrepreneurs insofar as the environment is concerned. This critique is not new, and has been made many times before Sieferle. The second critique, which is more original, is that the Left’s analysis inevitably veers towards separating victims and criminals (for example, the recent British Labour slogan of “for the many, not the few”), whereby the supporters of socialist change always identify with the many who will benefit from the proposed state improvements, and blame for injustice or failure can always be apportioned to a nebulous “them.” It is notoriously unclear who the “few” or “they” are. This is especially the case in connection with the deterioration of the environment. Sieferle says that trying to identify the many “victims” from the “few” miscreants is to enter into a maze from which it will be difficult to exit knowing who is responsible for what extent of environmental damage. After all, a large degree of damage originates not in production, but in consumption, and production in a free-market economy is responding to demand. Sieferle is right to object to the attempt, so characteristic of much Left-wing thinking, to shift blame to an ill-defined minority, relieving the many deserving and exploited “victims” of responsibility for their own behavior.
As for those whose program is officially focussed on ecology, the lack of realism among Greens is, as Sieferle notes, demonstrated by the fact that they are “markedly hard of hearing,” as he quaintly expresses it, when it comes to Malthus and the population bomb, the development which lay at the center of the original Limits to Growth. The guilt for overpopulation, if guilt it is, lies primarily with those who have children they cannot feed. This apportioning of “guilt” has been completely overturned since the publication of the Club of Rome report, and now guilt is said to lie with the “greed of a few” and the “unfair distribution of resources.” This is a major, powerful falsehood to which a large part of Western society adheres. International humanism, coupled, it must be said (although Sieferle surprisingly omits this point), with the cultural and racial guilt of white nations, now makes criticism of non-white demographics taboo.
The political solution of an authority not awed by such a taboo is clear. Aid should be closely linked to a reduction of birthrates. Countries which do not tackle the issue of high birthrates should have all aid cut off and be allowed to deal with the problems of their own making themselves. If they cannot do so, nature will do it for them.
This leads to what Sieferle considers an alternative to the “ecological dictatorship” (his words) which the crisis of the time arguably demands. An alternative would be a strategy of containment within the parameters of a liberal economic system. This system is technical and is partly in place. Pollution has made a health hazard of swimming in many lakes and rivers, so open-air swimming pools in prosperous areas are built as alternatives to nature. The tendency here is increasingly towards life in “completely closed off, technically reconstituted areas whose physical parameters are completely monitored and guarded” (p. 365). This, along with the virtual world of a nature which is only before our eyes in appearance, seems to have progressed significantly just since Sieferle wrote this book, while the natural environment in the world continues to decline. Whether one alternative might be more effective than another or more likely to establish itself if and when the deterioration of the environment demands it, Sieferle does not say.
So there we have two solutions, political ones at least, but this gloomy skeptic has not finished:
The skeptic may see that neither planned alternatives will really get on top of the problem . . . The subject of the environment still seems to be very much “Left-wing” because it is mainly acknowledged by those who act in a socialist tradition, whilst on the political “Right” the strategy of playing down the relevance of environment as a political issue is the strategy which is most often followed.
But the issue will soon be impossible to ignore. “Increasingly, however, the destruction of the environment is part of a problem, a theme, to which a wide variety of responses is possible . . .” (p. 376). Sieferle notes that environmentalists, like all optimists of the eighteenth century who have so deeply influenced modern thought, believe that “man” is, or at least should be and could be, constantly progressing. There is no logical compulsion to assume such a premise, says Sieferle, for the premise is not rational, it is an ideological wish. We might be prepared to take a reduction in the state of man’s happiness.
Sieferle wonders if society might partly, as a result of necessary environmental protection measures, move away from the notion of the “right to happiness.” The strength of environmental politics lies in its realism (p. 375). “There is no reason for believing,” notes Sieferle darkly, “that an active environmental policy in the sense of dealing with the consequences of the environmental crisis will be undertaken altogether in a humanistic universalistic sense” (p. 377). Sieferle is quite adept at unsettling his readers with menacing understatements. By way of conclusion, Sieferle notes that a many-faceted “multicultural” world will be better equipped to deal with environmental and social upheavals than a universal global civilization which fatally promises the citizens of the world more than the world can supply. It is, after all, not a given, just because the peddlers of the current universalistic dogma present it as a given, that the cost of environmental catastrophe should be equally or even equitably borne.
Sieferle’s third alternative, after a universal dictatorship or liberal elitist retreat, is that of a retreat to regional and societal self-sufficient groupings. (I use the word retreat intentionally: all solutions which Sieferle considers are solutions involving retreat or sacrifice.) He calls it “reactive environmental policy” (reaktive Umweltpolitik), as opposed to what he calls the “causal” (kausale Umweltpolitik), which is currently, he notes, the only environmental policy regarded as legitimate, namely to seek a fairer distribution of resources in the face of scarcity at a global level. The reactive policy would not seek to be fair in the sense given to fairness by those who believe in a universal egalitarian “man,” according to which any one human individual enjoys the same intrinsic worth as any other.
If the diagnosis of a foreseeable environmental crisis is to be taken seriously, so is reactive environmental policy as little capable as the causative of warding off or even taking control of the looming crisis of adaptation of the industrial system. However, owing to the small-is-beautiful, decentralized orientation in the area of what is “one’s own,” the reactive alternative might facilitate this transfer to a state of non-progress (stationäre Zustand) by increasing the cultural multiplicity of the world, and at the very least affront comprehensive cultural homogenization. (pp. 383-384)
This warning of homogenization calls to mind an earlier reference by the writer: “The more modern the world becomes, the more color it loses, the more unified and conformist it becomes” (p. 186). This would seem to be an alternative that Sieferle favors, for once all is said and done, he cannot hide his own preferences and wishes.
But while there is undoubtedly a yearning for particularism in this book and a distrust of utopias, visions of happiness, religion, and ideals, this book should not be closed to those who are romantic enough to harbor just such visions. Epochenwechsel is, to stress the point again, an intellectual point of departure, it is neither a program nor a cogent argument for any course of action or inaction. It abounds with flashes of insight and original formulations. It belongs firmly to the tradition of German philosophy, even at a time when the German mainstream media are controlled by those with neither the time nor, it is to be feared, the intelligence to read and understand it. To further examine Sieferle’s arguments and observations here would be to turn this review into a book.
Arguably, the most important message of this remarkable work is that Sieferle the prophet proclaims “the end of the universalistic world is nigh.” First Marxism preached the end of history in the name of the proletariat, then capitalism in the name of the free individual, but there is no end. The mole goes on tunneling. Sieferle believes that the only unbroken line through human history is the “irreversible development of technology” (p. 406), but like many of his assertions, this, too, is debatable. The Roman Empire boasted a drainage and waste disposal system which was lost in the fifth century and did not return until the eighteenth. The universal man as we know him today depends on one thing: growth.
Continuous economic growth and standard of living are the indispensable components of the egalitarian-universal program, which can only in this way iron out specific differences in ways of living and make the abstractions “individual” and “man” real. Real universalism stands and falls with the possibility of material progress. (p. 410)
The threefold environmental disaster for Sieferle has three parts: the cultural (something like Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations); the demographic, which will continue to undermine technical advances and the exhaustion of finite reserves; and the Third World (does not the oft-preferred expression “underdeveloped” not point to the obsession with progress and growth which lies at the heart of global capitalism?). The grand delusion of Western industrial societies (including the major part of the protest movements which complement them) consists in not wanting to face this fact, or at least to ignore the serious consequences which have to be drawn from it. (p. 412)
On September 17, 2016, Rolf Peter Sieferle took his own life. Reports in the hostile press stating that he was dying of cancer or was gradually going blind have been refuted by those who knew him. It has also been suggested that he had become depressed and isolated, and this has also been refuted. Perhaps a hint as to why he did it is given by a remark I read about someone who met him twice, who mentioned that Sieferle was disappointed that his books were not read seriously, or at least not discussed in public. People were not grappling with the themes of his essays, they were only reacting in a Pavlovian manner to expressions or terms of speech which broke the “unwritten rules” of a liberal consensus.
Reading what has been said about Sieferle online, it can be seen that his detractors, and even his defenders, seem more concerned with the “scandal,” the “provocation” arising from small parts of his writing, than discussing his major theses. (This reminds me strongly of Heidegger.) They do not have the time, it seems, to grapple with the complex themes which Sieferle has skillfully opened for discussion. What is more dispiriting than the fact that establishment media have rejected him is that his works seem to be too difficult for career journalists to discuss seriously at all. The suspicion will not go away that they are just not up to it. Who knows? This inability of the foe to publicly engage with his writing, or of the friend to introduce his ideas, may in itself go some way toward explaining Sieferle’s suicide.