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“In a world where no less than 400,000 litres of water are used to manufacture a car, it is ridiculous to urge people to use the water in which they boiled their eggs to water their plants in order to save water.” Absurdities great and small are in abundance when it comes to environmentalism. Jürgen Dahl (1929 to 2001) keenly satirized them, yet has remained an insider tip in the world of environmental politics to this very day.

By Thomas Wagner.

Photo of Jürgen Dahl
Photo Jürgen Dahl. Copyright: © Jürgen Dahl

The son of painter Oskar Dahl was initially a bookseller in Krefeld. He later worked as an editor of the magazine “Scheidewege” (“Crossroads”) and wrote philosophical and scientific articles and books. He became known for his garden columns in magazines such as “Natur” and the weekly newspaper “Die Zeit”. From the late 1960s onwards, he refocused his attention on the increasingly anxious middle classes, the tapestry of newly created civic action groups and the anti-nuclear and environmental movements. When Mathias Greffrath, writing in “Die Zeit” in 2011, recalled the avant-garde of the anti-nuclear movement, he named the versatile author along with Robert Jungk (“Der Atomstaat”; “The Nuclear State”) and Günter Anders (“Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen”; “The Outdatedness of Human Beings”). All three had “given words to the outrage” – prophetic, sceptical, ironic, lamenting and aggressive.

A severe examiner, not a role model

Dahl does not play the role model; he does not preach, he uncovers. His sharp scepticism is based on precise observation and stringent analysis. This is reflected by the wide variety of topics he addresses and by his keen sense of nuance with which he dissects the language and terminology which are used to keep the real motives hidden. Read against the backdrop of the current environmental crisis and the loss of biodiversity, his analytical warnings shine a harsh light – time and again – on the sometimes hysterical awareness-raising methods of current environmental movements. In this context, Dahl is playing the role of Cassandra, whose prophetic warnings were not believed, to the little extent that it matters to him to be proven right at the end. He changes the perspective, pursues new strategies and sets boundaries – for these reasons alone he should be read by anyone determined to save the world with creative ideas. Dahl expresses doubt and raises objections where even today, people are happy to enjoy the reassuring concept of both having their cake and eating it. He is convinced that technological progress alone will not sort it all out. And so, time after time, his republished works prove that it is worth looking back to the recent past to counter one’s own bias.

Intuition in lieu of abstraction

The panorama is broad. On the one side, pleas and objections against mobility and against plastic. On the other, an analysis of the ecology which leads beyond these. Arguments and claims are put to the test: what is correct and what is exaggerated? Be it the unit of measurement for blood pressure, the effects of psychotropic drugs, useful inventions or the final whisper of a nuclear attack, Dahl battles “the feudal capriciousness in the vestments of science” with surgical precision. He opposes everything irreparable and criticises the absurdities of the world of commerce, rampant consumerism and the increasingly rapid downward spiral. Dahl uses a friendly, authoritative tone to point out the vicious cycles in which we are inevitably trapped as part of our civilisation. Until we are no longer able to shake off the belief that we will only be able to find our way out of them when we stop lying to ourselves and are ready to actually make changes. His sharp eye identifies the problems in any manner of abstraction. In return, he strives for a view that addresses every single being, in order to build a new world view.

How to eradicate eagles with burgers

One of Dahl’s examples of the logic of self-deception is the eradication of the Philippine eagle: “The rainforest is being cut down to obtain the meat which fast-food restaurants turn into burgers, endangering the Philippine eagle; however, the money left over from selling the burgers is then used to finance a video that raises awareness of the deforestation of the rainforests and the endangerment of the Philippine eagle. If someone were to turn the Philippine eagle straight into burgers, he would feel the scorn of many consumers.”

Living perception instead of dead science

Dahl plainly tries to find out and speak about “how things are actually going in the world”. This is no simple undertaking when interests are at play and things and systems are complex. In “Annäherung an den Salbei” [“Approaching the Sage plant”], for example, he illustrates how detailed and momentous it can be to get close up to a plant. The result is a portrait which measures the rift between the living thing and science, which is getting further and further away. Dahl:

“A look which embraces its object with confidence and meditation sees through the shadows and focuses on the uniqueness of the form as a fate of possibilities, every one a metaphorical manifestation of a basic principle of life. Every intuition which aims to experience the being, in both senses of the word, sees uniquely different combinations of equivalences, similarities, contrasts, principles and structures, hallmarks of diversity.”

According to Dahl, the objective of such a “living perception” cannot be to “reduce these phenomena to a generality and let them dwindle into a type of catalogue of samples”.

A radical change of perspective

Dahl answers with a radical change of perspective:

“Facts and figures cannot be used to define behaviour whose primary requirement is a scientifically unjustifiable reverence for inconceivability and uniqueness. Perceiving the forms in this world as irrecoverable phenomena or words of an unknown language is the first step in a different direction away from a historical assessment which only sees them as evidence of a history of evolution. Also away from an ecological perspective which strives to encompass everything and yet remains trapped wondering about purposes.”

By advocating reverence for the inconceivable things of the world with all of its beings which “as always, did not come into being by virtue of our cleverness”, Dahl casts a shadow on the naïve faith in science of current movements and lays bare their blind spots. Whether the author approaches the sage in an unusual manner or writes in defence of the plume moth, he reveals the limitations of prevailing paradigms. As ecology does not describe what should be, but only what is in front of our eyes, Dahl thinks “beyond ecology”, as is rightly written in the subheading of one of the books. He sums it up: “One will not get far with ecology alone.”

Islands in an ocean of devastation

Can peace be made with Mother Nature? Does Dahl even see a way out? He sometimes sees one as an “intricate path through unknown terrain where no more trees are cut down than are necessary to continue along the path.” Yet he remains sceptical as to whether a turnaround is still possible. Even where ecology is contemplated beyond its own limits, all that forms are “islands in an ocean of devastation” and, at best, “scaled-down mirror images of a world showing how people could put them in place if we had the chance to start again from scratch.” Voices audible from afar, “from the islands comes the call for a turnaround, and the ones who are calling are right to do so. But their calls are the echoes of future defeats.” The “tyranny of the global economy” is well established and “covetousness is generally accepted as a fact of life.” The freedom “to burn the last of the world’s resources” is viewed “everywhere as an inalienable basis of civilisation.”

Jürgen Dahl was only able to conceive of fundamental change in the form of a radical collapse: “We can only hope that the structures and systems with which we are wrecking the abundance of the Earth and through which we have turned greed into a principle collapse before they destroy us completely – that the murderous industries (…) collapse along with their infrastructure before the Earth is fully depleted and its population poisoned.”

Books by Jürgen Dahl

Cover Jürgen Dahl, Der unbegreifliche Garten und seine Verwüstung

Jürgen Dahl
Der unbegreifliche Garten und seine Verwüstung

Über Ökologie und über Ökologie hinaus.
Mit einer Einführung von Manfred Kriener

Bibliothek der Nachhaltigkeit, Oekom Verlag, München 2020
ISBN 978-3-96238-184-4,
geb., 208 S.
22,00 Euro

Also available as an e-book

Publisher’s Website

Cover Jürgen Dahl, Einrede gegen die Mobilität

Jürgen Dahl
Einrede gegen die Mobilität.
Der Anfang vom Ende des Automobils.
Einrede gegen Plastic.

Verlag Das kulturelle Gedächtnis, Berlin 2020.
ISBN 978-3-946990-39-0

geb., 112 S.,
12,00 Euro

Publisher’s Website

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