Issue 8

The Great Optimist

Uwe Schneidewind

Photos by Gesine Laura Hennig Words by Oliver Herwig
Uwe Schneidewind



Uwe Schneidewind, President of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, is a self-confessed optimist.

Change is a funny thing. It often comes along when we need it least, and is over before we even get the chance to react properly. But not all change is triggered by the almost imperceptible beat of a butterfly’s wing. Some change announces itself well in advance. Take climate change, for example. Once that happens, things move fast. All of a sudden, previous certainties are rocked to their foundations, and even in Germany where cars are king, SUVs in the city are no longer socially acceptable but the roads are full of e-scooters whizzing along like insects gone crazy.


But where are the limits to the wave of creative disruption we are currently experiencing? And is there any sign of a sensible framework for the next steps? Questions like these are best directed to a self-confessed optimist like Uwe Schneidewind, President of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy. He’s been to the opera. Not to sit in a box and listen to Fidelio or watch Swan Lake, of course, but to change things. Uwe Schneidewind, Professor of Innovation Management and Sustainability at the University of Wuppertal, simply swapped roles; the business management expert spent three weeks as an opera director while the dramatic advisor and director of Wuppertal Opera, Berthold Schneider, took the helm at the Climate Institute. The experiment reveals plenty about the working methods favoured by the charismatic Schneidewind. He assembles like-minded people around him and permanently expands his network. Few scientists can boast connections as wide-ranging: member of the Club of Rome, deputy chair of the Association for Ecological Economic Research (VÖW) and member of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU). He was even a member of the board of the German Protestant Kirchentag (church congress) from 2011 to 2017. He attracts many people into his universe by his warmth, marvels Schneider. I’m amazed by his ability to grasp complex situations rapidly and verbally decode them. He has a phenomenal knack for capturing issues in a nutshell.


At the same time Schneidewind is a diplomat, wrapping disquieting messages in elegant packaging. Asked in a radio interview for Deutschlandfunk about his most poignant memory from the role swap, he replied, Well, personally, it naturally thrust me right out of my comfort zone. The 53-year-old aims to do exactly the same with society as a whole, rocking the boat, generating feedback and thus getting things moving, focusing on resonance. In Schneidewind’s view, climate change always goes hand in hand with cultural change, a pansocietal project to secure personal development opportunities that are globally fair and applicable to everyone within the ecological limits of our planet—today, and in the future. As expressed in the blurb for his latest book, Die große Transformation. Eine Einführung in die Kunst gesellschaftlichen Wandels (The Great Transformation. An introduction to the art of societal change), its 500 pages describing sustainability as rethinking for the benefit of future generations. Schneidewind eschews any calls for unfurling large-scale plans to be checked off point by point and refrains—at least openly—from preaching personal renunciation. Instead, he concentrates on change, on achieving transformation of consumption (including prosperity), of energy and of resources (into a circular economy), of mobility and of nutrition, of urban environments and of production. These transformations are accompanied by some pretty utopian-sounding demands, such as climate-neutral and low-resource satisfaction of mobility needs using just one-tenth of the vehicles in operation today. He focuses on avoidance of traffic and a shift in transport methods, on high-quality urban and regional planning, on soft factors such as attractive options for walking and cycling and on standard requirements such as good public transport systems. None of this is really new, of course, but is delivered in a matter-of-fact style without recourse to (moral) finger-wagging; simply sensible ideas or, as Chancellor Angela Merkel would probably say,with no alternative. Asked about the Greta effect and its impact on politicians, Schneidewind replies, Politicians of all people should be the first to give superhero fictions a wide berth. Something is now starting to stir in virtually all the parties.

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