Europe’s growth-killing cult

Published in Business Spectator (Melbourne), 25 November 2010

After a year of crisis summits, austerity packages and emergency measures, it is no longer a secret that Europe faces enormous financial challenges. Serious as these matters are, they are not the only obstacles on the continent’s road to recovery. There are psychological factors as well.

Originating from the green movement, a culture of risk-aversion has become firmly entrenched in the European mindset. This jeopardises the continent’s future economic development.

Australians can see in Europe what happens when a society begins to wrap itself in cotton wool. Seeking protection from all evils, real and imaginary, it misses out on opportunities for change and improvement. Green thinking may style itself as progressive, but at its root it is deeply reactionary.

It was sociologist Ulrich Beck who had popularised the term ‘risk society’ in the 1980s. Beck warned that modernity with its new technologies had produced greater hazards than ever before – and consequently there was a greater need to regulate these dangers wherever they occur.

Three decades later, Beck’s ideas are part of European mainstream thinking. Nowadays, the containment of risk is happening even in places where there are no apparent dangers at all. It is entirely sufficient to have a vague feeling of being threatened to block a new technology. Even Internet superpower Google just had to find this out.

In countries around the world, including Australia, South Africa and the US, and for quite some time, Google has been offering its Street View service that presents panoramic streetscapes of large cities. As its users know, it is an extremely useful piece of software if you are planning a holiday, need directions or think of moving to another place.

When the company announced the launch of Street View in Germany, however, the public reactions were hysteric. Google would be able to spy on innocent citizens, commentators suggested. Burglars could better plan their next heists, the police warned. Banks may refuse mortgage applications based on the looks of the neighbourhood, politicians were worried.

Given that Street View is a static tool that often uses two year-old pictures, and further considering that no links between façade views and other data are made, such allegations were not only pointless. They also showed that most people had not even understood what Street View actually does. In their science fiction fantasies, the warners probably imagined a 24/7 satellite tracking and surveillance system. In fact, all that Google was about to offer were pictures that anyone can already take and publish. There is no law prohibiting photography in public places, so Google had the law on their side.

In the end, no logical or legal defence could help Google who were pressured into blurring the images of houses inhabited by protesting Luddites. The result is an online software in which potential tourists can still see some of Germany’s sights, and expats like me can pay a virtual visit to their old schools – at least as long as no teacher has protested. But hundreds of thousands of other places are hidden behind greyish pixel clouds. Ironically, even Google’s own offices in Munich are pixelated after a neighbour had made a complaint.

For foreign observers studying the European mindset, there is no better way to understand it than by travelling through Street View. It tells a lot about a society if it feels threatened by pictures of its façades. This is no longer an expression of rational carefulness but a sign of angst-obsession. A society that does not feel safe in its own homes because someone outside might take pictures has a problem with itself.

Google’s Street View experience may be disturbing without causing too much economic damage. However, there is a more harmful side to Europe’s technophobia. It shows where new infrastructure projects are delayed or prevented because of alleged environmental risk concerns.

For fear of climate change, many Europeans would rather sooner than later shut down their coal and gas fired power stations. Since they are also scared of radiation, though, nuclear power appears equally suspect to them. Theoretically this means that Europeans should embrace renewable energies. Practically, though, even water and wind power are subject to numerous environmental concerns.

In England, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds issued a statement calling for ‘a more strategic and long-term planning approach to wind development’ to ensure that no wild birds are harmed through disturbance, habitat loss or collision. In North Germany, there are dozens of citizens’ groups organising protests against wind turbines which they blame for noise and light pollution.

Hydro-electric power is no more popular, either. Wherever new power stations are planned, activists are quick to point out the dangers for eco-systems. In Austria’s Vorarlberg region, for example, they fight a new run-of-the-river hydro-electricity project because its construction could disturb and damage flora and fauna, including common sandpipers, beavers and reed mace.

As opinion polls demonstrate, Europeans are now instinctively afraid – of anything. The EU Commission just published a special technology edition of its Eurobarometer series, in which citizens from all 27 members countries are regularly polled on a wide variety of issues.

The results were telling. For example, only 38 per cent of Europeans said they had ever tried to inform themselves about genetically modified foods. However, large majorities reject the use of such foods. For 70 per cent of all Europeans, GM foods are ‘entirely unnatural’ – which invites you to wonder what they make of nectarines and seedless grapes. Sixty-one per cent of the respondents said just the thought of GM foods caused them a feeling of unease. And that’s without even tasting them.

Other findings were equally puzzling. A majority of 83 per cent of all Europeans have never heard of synthetic biology. That’s fair enough because it is still quite a new field of research. But when Europeans were then asked what they would like to know about synthetic biology, the dominant answer was ‘potential risks’ (63 per cent), beating ‘potential benefits’ (52 per cent).

When people are, almost by default, more interested in risks than in benefits, it does not speak for their belief in progress. When this attitude coincides with widespread ignorance about new technologies, it makes for a stifling environment for socioeconomic development.

By putting an overemphasis on risk, Europe has turned itself into an inward looking, stagnant society. No wonder that path-breaking research increasingly happens outside the EU.

Australia has a choice to avoid European-style technophobia. The recent surge of green politics, however, suggests we are likely to follow the European example.

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