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Seymour Gris: SUVs and coffee cups

Gris has a gripe with two things... which in turn leads to a discussion of one of the German media's most popular pasttimes - the good old Kapitalismus Debatte.

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Photo by Ryan O’Shea

Two things are bothering me: SUVs and coffee cups…

I’ll start with the former. Every day, ever-larger SUVs – leather-interiored Land and Range Rovers, sharkish BMW X5s, flatulent Porsche Cayennes, blobby Audi Q7s or, for the bohemian rich, vintage Mercedes Geländewagen – clog up the streets around the Exberliner office in Mitte. These streets are Fahrradstraßen supposedly, intended primarily for cyclists. Only residents are allowed to use a motor vehicle there. And how rich the residents of the Scheunenviertel now appear to be! A place populated 100 years ago by poor Jews from the Eastern reaches of Prussia and the assorted low-lifes described in Berlin Alexanderplatz. In 2014, this part of Berlin – and large swathes of Prenzlauer Berg and Charlottenburg and Kreuzberg and Schöneberg and even Friedrichshain – is becoming rich folk’s playground. Well-heeled Germans (and others) seem to be swimming in cash like never before… with no place to put it but in monster cars and fancy flats.

And now rich folk are beginning to be concerned about the blatant class disparity in Germany (which now has the highest wealth inequality in the eurozone). In a recent interview with the Tagesspiegel, the head of Deutsche Bank Jürgen Fitschen said, “The rich can’t close their eyes to the problems of others!” Wow. Radical stuff coming from the boss of the country’s largest bank. Why he is saying this crazy stuff? Is he worried about a rebirth of the RAF?

What sparked this latest Kapitalismus Debatte (there’s one every six months or so these days) was the unthinkable news that the economy of the European powerhouse (that’s us!) stopped growing in the summer.  And the next thing you know it, Der Spiegel puts out a cover questioning the entire “Zombie System” of capitalism.

Meanwhile, Germany’s business weekly Wirtschaftswoche wearily asked itself: “Is capitalism dead?” and indulged in headlines like “the threat of mass uprising” in an interview with yet another economist with yet another new book about capitalism being practically over.

Even Geo, Germany’s National Geographic, put out a special edition on Kapitalismus, as if it were some lost civilisation like the Aztecs.

So we’re in the midst of a “debate” on the possible failure of capitalism, but like so many debates in Germany, this one will probably vanish like a puff of smoke as soon as the statistics look a tiny bit rosier. Perceptions of the economy are fickle: this time last year the media was unanimously praising Germany’s new Wirtschaftwunder (economic miracle) – and suddenly we’re all gloom and doom again.

These tiresome “debates” usually leave me at a loss about what I can do personally to improve the world. Should I support S-Bahn strikers or send money to the Kurds, boycott Amazon, H&M, Ikea, Lidl, Aldi, hit the streets to demonstrate against capitalism, racism, fascism, sexism, militarism and Islamism, sign petitions against GMOs, Nestle and Shell? Or should I slash the tyres of SUVs or at least egg them or perhaps join a revolutionary cell or live in a tent in the forest or just forget about all this stuff and drink, smoke and shop myself into a pleasurable coma? 

No, today, I’ve decided to stop drinking from paper cups. An inadequate reaction to the troubles of the world, I know.

As this nice little article in Berliner Zeitung reminded me, there’s a lot of talk about “sustainability” in Berlin: We’ve embraced cycling, eco-electricity, car-, food- and sofa-sharing, bio-shopping and veganism on quite a large scale. We’ve embraced a new amazing zero-waste grocery store, and yet… as the Berliner Zeitung points out, we Berliners dispose of 250 million paper coffee cups per year. An incredible 500,000 trees are cut down annually just to produce the coffee cups used in Germany – and that’s just one medium-sized country. Fifteen, 20 years ago, “coffee to go” was practically unheard of in Germany outside of petrol stations. And so the progress Germany has made in terms of sustainibility: renewable energy, recycling, deposits on plastic bottles – gets nibbled away again with something as idiotic as the to-go cup. In 2013, a politician suggested a tax on takeaway cups. It was quickly dismissed and forgotten, but I thought it was a good idea. 

Maybe some cutting edge third wave coffee shop will boldly lead the way. Bonanza or The Barn or Tres Cabezas, i.e. one of those places that so likes to brag of the fairness, sustainability and transparency of the sourcing of their coffee, should bravely do away with paper cups altogether and offer Pfandbecher instead. How about it? 

As for me, I’ve given up the little bastards. I just drink my coffee in the coffee shop. Or at home. A tiny little stance against all the destruction. And let’s ban SUVs from Berlin while we’re at it.