Leitbilder, Erfolgsbedingungen und Handlungsempfehlungen für eine ressourcenleichte Gesellschaft

Models, conditions for success and recommended actions for a resource-light society and how they resonate with experts and citizens

How do we wish to live in future? On a cooperative and regional basis? On a business-friendly and environmentally-friendly basis? Moderately? Frugally? Or with as little “stuff” as possible? We should not set any limits when thinking about the kind of future we want. The fact is that if our society wants to conserve its resources and preserve a high quality of life at the same time, something has to change.

By Holger Glockner

How do we wish to live in future? On a cooperative and regional basis? On a business-friendly and environmentally-friendly basis? Moderately? Frugally? Or with as little “stuff” as possible? We should not set any limits when thinking about the kind of future we want. The fact is that if our society wants to conserve its resources and preserve a high quality of life at the same time, something has to change. At Z_punkt, we have created an exciting range of options for a resource-light society within the framework of a collective research project for the Federal Environment Agency *. In so doing, we have developed five models with the help of scenario technology. They are deliberately quite different, but the key initial question is the same: how do we create a society that is sparing in its use of resources without neglecting quality of life? The models do not represent an ideal scenario here but set out on a voyage of discovery to find out which social developments would be possible. The scenarios developed by us jointly with our partners were discussed with experts during the project and were used in parallel by sociodimensions to ask citizens, which models they could envisage for their and our future. The discussion about a sustainable future is an ongoing theme for technical experts but the public discussion is currently expanding on many levels, making the scenarios more topical than ever as a trigger for the debate about the future. 

The dominant logic of doing business is currently still based on significant and increasing consumption of energy and materials. By continuing to focus on this growth model, there is a risk that our natural basis for life will be permanently destroyed. Although a broad range of positive blessings has evolved from this way of living and doing business - such as increasing life expectancy, better education and health care or greater security and prosperity - “carrying on as before” is not a sustainable option for the future.

Global challenges

Before we speak of a possible lever for a change in our use of resources in future, we shall look at the global challenges that humanity will have to face in the next few decades. The most urgent challenges are dealt with and summarised in the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals. We see major progress, especially from an economic and social perspective. There are, however, no grounds for satisfaction. Our climate and our environment are in an alarming state without there being any improvement in sight. Scientists have defined nine planetary boundaries (such as climate change, loss of biological diversity, land system change) of which some have gone far beyond capacity as far as overuse of natural resources is concerned. This leads to severe problems, which are still unknown in human history and are evolving from ever more complex interactions between mankind and technology.

To illustrate this, we shall take the Earth Overshoot Day (EOD) as an example. This is the day on which we, as humanity, have consumed more resources each year and caused more environmental pollution than our planet can replace or “digest”. This day occurs earlier every year. Calculations started in 1987, when Earth Overshoot Day occurred on 19 December. Already 12 days too soon. This small gap could still have been corrected at this time. With a little effort, it would probably have been feasible to shift Earth Overshoot Day towards an acceptable use of resources. However, the opposite happened. EOD has occurred earlier and earlier each year since. Last year, it occurred as early as 1 August. In Germany, EOD even occurred on 2 May.

What does this mean for us? If we do not wish to overshoot the planetary boundaries permanently, experts have indicated that each individual on earth may not consume more than 8 tonnes of material per year on average. For Germany, this means that we must reduce our consumption of resources from the current level of ca. 40 to 8 tonnes. In other words, we may only use a fifth of what we use at present. This would definitely entail a radical change in our way of life.

Models en route to a resource-light society

The crucial question is whether we work actively towards a successful transformation or whether transformation will only occur as a result of a catastrophe (“transformation by design” or “transformation by disaster”). In recent years, we at Z_punkt have carried out a project for the Federal Environment Agency in collaboration with the Wuppertal Institute and sociodimensions to analyse whether and how Germany can switch to becoming a resource-light society in the next 20 years. In the following sections, we briefly highlight the five models we have developed and explain how citizens reacted to them. Detailed versions and analyses can be found in the reports of the results.

Model 1: a cooperative regional focus

The first scenario is based on the ideals, which are characteristic of cooperatives - a focus on the greater good, cooperation and fairness. They have evolved into mainstays of business and society in this scenario. The region in which people live plays a vital role. Production and consumption are highly regionalised because transport and mobility have been made more expensive through increased government charges. Regional procurement, which massively reduces transport energy and the consumption of resources, is the most obvious anchor of resource-poor living. Production and the services sector are not dominated by large conglomerates but by small and medium-sized enterprises. These are mainly organised on a cooperative basis. A strong, voluntary focus on the greater good, which is supported by legal measures, leads to considerable changes in behaviour and encourages social innovation. Sharing is in! Consumers opt in many cases for “using instead of owning”.The development, which Generation Y once started, has gone mainstream in society. A strong culture of bottom-up opinion-forming and decision-making contributes to significant commitment by individuals to the concept of resource-poor living. It’s not surprising as decisions are made regionally, implemented by those involved locally and have an immediate impact on the local community.

Capacity for making society far more cohesive but doubts about its political feasibility 

It is an attractive future scenario – both for experts and for citizens. It appealed to 60 percent of those who participated in the qualitative analysis as the best or second-best scenario (on a scale of 1-5, 1 means: “I like this idea most”, 5 means: “I like this idea least.”). They are attracted to the model because it offers an alternative to globalisation and deregulation. The model also reflects current trends, looking at the present popularity of regional products, the approval for a sharing economy and the interest in a resource-efficient recycling economy. However, the aspect of regionality was not viewed positively by all those questioned. Younger, consumption-oriented participant in survey, in particular, criticised the idea of a cooperative regional focus as limited to consumption and restricted in its aspirations. The concept of a cooperative society is losing ground – with experts and participants in the online survey. 

Key aspects:

  • Greater good
  • Fairness
  • Regionality
  • Sharing


Model 2: business friendly greening – the citizens’ favourite

The second future discussed is, essentially, a continuation and stepping-up of the German government's current high-tech strategy. The shift in energy policy is being supplemented by radical reform programmes covering the use of raw materials, transport and food / agriculture. The reduction in the use of resources will be achieved by the introduction of modern technologies and the encouragement of competition while consumer behaviour will not change massively. Consumers prefer durable, high quality products that comply with stringent environmental criteria and therefore reduce the consumption of resources and the waste generated by consumer goods. Material symbols still play an important role in conferring status. The recycling economy is widespread because it reduces costs. Research and science are important, as they continuously develop and implement new ideas for producing in an environmentally-friendly manner that is energy-efficient and saves on materials. Coordination of the conservation of resources is managed through a combination of political regulation, incentives and market mechanisms in this redesigned environment.

Ideas are widely accepted and have the potential to be implemented easily albeit with concerns about cushioning the social impact

High-quality products? Yes, of course! Durable? Absolutely! Manufactured in a resource-efficient manner? You bet! The idea of an environmentally-friendly economy, which combines progress and economic growth with environmental awareness, sounds extremely attractive. This model is the most widely welcomed of all the scenarios that were discussed. Compared with the other scenarios, 72 percent of those questioned rate it as best or second best, which is an enormous approval rating. Regulation is important in the world of greening the economy. To encourage a sustainable economy, provisions, taxes and sanctions are used as steering tools – just like the promotion of environmentally-friendly technologies. Despite being widely accepted, experts and those questioned have serious doubts as to the feasibility of this model. Why does a government have an interest in introducing new forms of regulation widely today? How are its democratic leaders to enforce these in complex political systems? And how will we manage to implement the model transnationally when it seems almost impossible to enforce it as a nation going it alone? Critics view the model as lacking answers to questions of social justice. 

Key aspects:

  • Innovation
  • Green technologies
  • Recycling economy
  • Strong parliament


Model 3: prescribed moderation – a citizen’s resources budget for everyone

This future is based on the idea that people would welcome more guidance in their lifestyle decisions, especially at times when consumption and other decisions are becoming more complex. The government will therefore introduce an annual resources budget for every citizen. Transitional rules in a transition phase and comprehensive advice provided by government will help people get used to living within the prescribed budget. As a result, products will be used jointly and recycled, and networks will be developed as places for shared learning. Consumers will also become creative in stretching their personal budgets – through exchange, sharing and recycling. Business will adapt by concentrating on products that allow people to live within their budget, which will encourage competition and innovation. Industrial companies and service providers are starting to compete in developing innovations aimed at keeping their consumption of resources as low as possible. Citizens are grateful for their lives being made easier by the amount of advice provided. Accordingly, they have considerable trust in the government and are only involved in policy-making to a minor extent.

The emergency scenario if nothing else works. But can it be implemented rapidly?

This model is the subject of controversial discussions among experts and came last in the online survey. Only 10 percent of the citizens questioned find it attractive (rated 1 or 2 in the online survey). The assumption that the impact of the citizens resource budget will be speedy and effective supports the model. However, there are many reasons that do not: the restriction of consumer freedom, bureaucratic difficulties in implementing it, the need for monitoring. For many people, “prescribed moderation” seems more like an emergency scenario than a model of choice. Nevertheless, some react positively to the fundamental concept of making citizens’ consumption of resources transparent.

Key aspects:

  • Citizens resource budget
  • Strong political leadership
  • Intense competition


Model 4: voluntary frugality

In contrast to this, in this scenario, resource-poor living is the result of voluntary simplification and restriction. People consume less, prefer less complex products and concentrate on their local surroundings. Government reacts to increasing pressure from NGOs to simplify income and taxes by introducing a basic income that is financed by receipts from higher taxes on the use of resources. In contrast, taxes on people’s work are reduced. Consequently, the economy encourages simple, very durable products and adjusts people’s salaries. The latter is necessitated by the introduction of a basic income, which allows people to switch jobs more frequently, to work part-time and to demand higher salaries for less attractive jobs. People will have more time to use as they wish and will become more heavily involved socially in caring for the elderly or in sports clubs. Citizens and NGOs will participate actively in political decision-making and will be increasingly recognised as major players, which will lead to a considerable degree of citizen participation.

A basic income without any conditions is a polarising concept with positive and negative attributes 

It is not surprising that the concept of a basic income without any conditions and the consequences resulting therefrom are very polarising. The model of voluntary frugality has equal numbers of supporters and critics. A third of those questioned (34%) harbour sympathies for the model (rated 1 or 2). Supporters view the idea of a basic income and the reduction in the pressure to perform positively. Critics reject it because the model runs counter to the principles of personal responsibility or the idea of a meritocracy in society. Not everybody is convinced by the idea of voluntary renunciation either. Nevertheless, the idea of breaking completely with society’s existing social and economic principles holds a certain fascination.

Key aspects:

  • Basic income without any conditions
  • High taxes on the consumption of resources
  • Low taxes on personal work
  • High citizen commitment to meaningful activities


Model 5: globalism without “stuff” 

This scenario follows a radical post-modern agenda of doing away with “stuff”. The most prominent issue here is the dismantling of the industrial base and a radical focus on the services sector including a significant upgrading of the centre of knowledge. At the same time, the potential of artificial intelligence, automation and digitisation is exploited to achieve a resource-light, efficient manufacturing society. Stringent standards governing resource-efficiency will apply to the increasing quantity of imports. This will encourage global innovation and competition to reduce the use of resources. The driving values of this globally focused society - solidarity, fairness and responsibility - will be reflected in both the economy and also in policy-making. Individuals prefer self-determined and sensible career options; companies react to this by significantly increasing employees’ flexibility and independence. Paternalistic patterns are completely abandoned in politics and citizens’ involvement will play a more significant role than ever before.

A resource-light society must take account of aspects of social justice 

This model is not popular overall. Only 23 percent of those questioned rated it first or second in comparison with other models. Experts and those questioned rated the fact that technologies such as artificial intelligence will play a key role for the future positively. The citizens questioned expressed particular scepticism about the dramatic shift from an industrial to a services nation, which purchases its goods through imports from abroad even if they have been manufactured in an environmentally-friendly manner. They are afraid this will lead to an increase in precarious employment. Feedback on this model shows that a resource-light society is only feasible for experts and citizens if it also takes account of aspects of social justice and social cohesion.

Key aspects:

  • Strong service economy
  • Little industry in Germany
  • Imports of resource-saving products 
  • Active citizen participation in political policy formation 


Conclusion: think long-term – be prepared – act proactively

There are different ways for companies to get by using fewer resources and despite this to ensure adequate prosperity. The challenges are enormous but can be mastered through concerted action. New market mechanisms, technological solutions, political programmes and social change must go hand in hand. Citizens and managers must opt for a path and take suitable measures to achieve an ambitious transformation of society. As many “agents of change” already show, social innovations in use, cooperative behaviour or the “practice of omission” are some examples that make a positive contribution to the change needed.

Ultimately, the proactive ingenuity of each player will be of critical significance in preventing transformation by disaster and achieving transformation by design.

* Methodology: Z_punkt developed the models with the Wuppertal Institute using scenario technology. The scenarios describe possible futures in which a resource-light society becomes a reality. In the first step, 14 factors influencing a resource-light society were identified. The key factors were then investigated for development options (step 2) and discussed with experts (step 3). We prepared the five models based on the scenarios in step 4. Subsequently, sociodimensions carried out the citizens’ survey. 


Population preferences: These ideas for the future are best

Model Business friendly greening A cooperative regional focus Voluntary frugality Globalism without "stuff" Prescribed moderation
Share of rating
72% 60% 34% 23% 10%

Question: Which of these ideas for the future do you like best? And which do you like least? (Scale 1 to 5)