If Germany’s Federal Environment Agency (UBA) had existed in 1835, it surely would surely have joined in the dire warnings about the country’s first train journey.
Back then, the “Eagle” locomotive ran the 6.2 kilometers from Nuremberg to Fürth in northern Bavaria in nine minutes. Skeptics at the time wondered whether the hissing steam engine was a godsend or an infernal machine. Now, we know the answer and we smile indulgently at the fears voiced in those days that travelers might pass out from the high speed.
Anyone reading the UBA’s statement on fracking this week may well be reminded of those heady times of technological progress nearly 200 years ago. It certainly reflects a similar fear of the unknown.
Shale gas extraction should have strict regulations to protect the environment and public safety. We should not proceed with extraction until the risks have been better researched and a full legal framework is in place. And then, clear guidelines should be imposed on the use of technology. The good old steam-engine debate sends its regards.
But good old German angst is threatening to prevent progress and the economic prosperity it brings. Widespread risk aversion is increasingly becoming a handicap for Germany competitiveness.
While Americans are utilizing shale gas extraction to prepare for an unprecedented industrial boom, pessimists dominate the German debate. A nation that considers itself a land of thinkers has imposed a ban on thinking. Even the idea of a trial extraction period to avoid being left behind has met with resistance.
The list of projects where public opinion is being shaped by naysayers goes on and on. Consider the issue of genetic engineering. Companies have heard enough of the debates over so-called high risk technologies. They no longer want to grow genetically modified foods in Europe, leading German chemical giant BASF to relocate its research departments to America.
Every new development carries risks and attracts critics. But no progress can be made without overcoming those risks and alleviating the concerns of critics.
Not too long ago that the process of carbon capture and storage (CCS), which seeks to gather greenhouse gases and deposit them in the ground, was itself buried in Germany after being killed by public and political pressure. Nanotechnology, the manipulation of atoms and molecules, is also on the verge of dying a silent death here.
But every new development carries risks and attracts critics. No progress can be made without overcoming those risks and alleviating the concerns of critics.
By the way, the automobile may never have gone into mass production if Bertha Benz had not snuck out of her house in August 1888 to go on the first long distance drive from Mannheim to Pforzheim in southern Germany with her two sons. She also faced risks at the time, but did not let them bother her. Success proved her right.
Bureaucrats at the Federal Environment Agency surely would not have been pleased by her historic joyride.
The author is head of Handelsblatt’s Berlin bureau. You can reach him at: [email protected]