Readers, welcome to my second post in the Century of German History series! As outlined in the first one, we’ll have a look at a historical event from one decade and exactly one board game related to it. Today, we’ll go back to the year 1979. We’ll begin with the erosion of the post-war consensus, proceed to the new social movements and advance to environmentalism as a political force. The game to accompany all of this is contemporary to the events: Ökolopoly (Frederic Vester/Natur).
The Erosion of the Post-War Consensus
After the convulsions of World War II, most Western societies formed a consensus bridging their societal gaps – conservatives and progressives, labor and capital overcame some their previous acrimonious struggles. It seemed undeniable that the working class deserved higher wages and better social security for the efforts they had made and the hardships they had endured during the war. In addition, the pro-capital laissez-faire economic policies of the 1920s were discredited by their contribution to bring about the Great Depression and their inability to combat it (as well as by the success of economies with more state intervention at that time). Just as well, the new threat of Soviet communism required society to be mobilized intellectually and materially for a new kind of struggle. So Left and Right forged a new society based on mixed economies and high public spending (both for defense and social programs). Societal cohesion and homogeneity was strong. All of this was based on the premise of a strong and growing industrial economy.
Thirty years later, that consensus had eroded. The growth-based industrial economy had begun to stutter, and many people had developed non-material desires that it could not fulfil. On the other hand, the industrial economy had led to various forms of ecological destruction like air and water pollution and deforestation. And over everything, the threat of a nuclear catastrophe loomed – as it almost happened during the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania on March 28, 1979. Among the ruins of the post-war consensus, new political movements rose.
The New Social Movements
Concern for the environment was but one new political movement that formed in the 1970s. Second-wave feminism reinvigorated the women’s movement, the end of détente inspired a new peace movement, and many more causes (LGBT rights, Third World solidarity…) also found their activists. All those movements had in common that they went beyond material values and were organized in a rather loose way that fit the individualism of their members.
Environmental activism was grounded in local action – say, to protect a wild plant (or to protest against a nuclear power plant), but also in the broader idea of ecology – the relations among living organisms and their non-living environments. More and more, ecosystems came to be seen as “cybernetic” – that is, as non-linear, interconnected systems with feedback loops. To give a simple example: The growth of a fox population would lead to the shrinking of the rabbit population, until the rabbits were so much decimated that the fox population would – for lack of nourishment – decrease again as well.
Environmentalism as a Political Force
Environmentalist political action took very different forms in East and West Germany. The East German environmental groups were part of the resurgence of East German non-state-organized culture in the late 1970s. They remained under the watchful eyes of their Communist rulers and were subjected to political repression if deemed subversive. All the while, the massive environmental destruction in East Germany (from coal mining, uranium mining, and especially the chemical industry in Bitterfeld) eroded the legitimacy of the regime and eventually contributed to its downfall in 1989 at the hands of the independent political activists.
The West German environmentalists faced other issues. The democratic, pluralist political system allowed them to express themselves freely, but they were wary of party politics. Nonetheless, some of them began to organize to gain electoral success for their political goals: In February 1979, the “Other Political Association/The Greens” was formed to run in the European Parliament elections of that year. It was the seed from which the party “The Greens” grew the following year.
Germany was not the first country in which environmentalist groups ran for office, but they won their first and greatest successes here. There are four chief causes for this:
- The German proportional representation system (as opposed to the first-past-the-post system of many Anglophone countries) makes it easier for new parties to gain representation in parliament.
- As the Social Democrats (which had been leading the federal government since 1969) had shifted to the center, there was a vacuum on the liberal left which the Greens filled.
- Germany’s system of public funding for parties tied to how many votes they won in elections allowed the new party to parlay their first electoral successes into renewed momentum without having to rely on outside donors.
- As Germany was (and is) a federal republic, the Greens could build up strength at the state level first.
And so they did: Already in October 1979, they won their first seats in the state legislature of Bremen. After some more successes on the state level, they won their first seats in the federal parliament in 1983. They have retained a parliamentary group there ever since (although from 1990 to 1994 the West German Greens lost their seats and only a handful of East German Greens and related civic activists were elected). In 1985, the Greens in Hesse were the first to enter into a governing coalition (with the Social Democrats) on the state level. From 1998 to 2005, the Greens were even a part of the federal government in Germany. Finally, in 2011, the Baden-Württemberg Greens were the first to lead a state coalition and fill the post of state prime minister – a feat they repeated in the next election, this time as the strongest party overall, leaving behind both the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats, Germany’s traditional big parties.
Ecopolicy as a Cybernetic System: Ökolopoly
Ökolopoly (a portmanteau between the German word for ecology and Monopoly, then as now the gold standard of board games) was first published in the environmentalist magazine Natur in 1980. It depicts the environmental, economic, and political processes within a country as cybernetically related. The (single) player’s goal is to adapt the various parameters – production, environmental damage, education, to name but a few – and reach a positive equilibrium. As these parameters influence each other, small changes can have far-reaching consequences. I remember increasing production to get more action points in my very first game – and while the actions points were useful, more production also increased the damage to the environment, which in turn lowered quality of life, and that lowered my politics score, limiting my action points in the longer run (and thrashing my final score, which depends on the politics and quality of life scores).
For a game from 1980, it does have some pretty innovative features: It has an action point allowance, and it is a solo game. Ökolopoly is an intricate simulation with a strong political and educational message: It does a great job getting your mind away from simple “I do this, so that happens” linear causalities, and teaches you systems thinking instead. Obviously, environmental protection, achieved through educating the population, is its central message.
In the end, however, it is a perfectly plannable puzzle: The same strategies will always yield the same results, so after you’ve played once, the only remaining challenge is to beat your score. And, as no one interferes with you, the entire process of gathering political will for environmental change is cut out. If only saving the planet was so easy…
On the protest against nuclear energy in West Germany, see Dannenbaum, Thomas: ”Atom-Staat” oder “Unregierbarkeit”? Wahrnehmungsmuster im westdeutschen Atomkonflikt der siebziger Jahre, in: Brüggemeier, Franz-Josef/Engels, Jens Ivo: Natur- und Umweltschutz nach 1945. Konzepte, Konflikte, Kompetenzen, Campus, Frankfurt/Main 2005, p. 268—286 (in German).
The view that ecosystems are cybernetic (even though they did not have a goalsetter in the traditional sense) was put forward by two zoologists in Patten, Bernard C./Odum, Eugene P.: The Cybernetic Nature of Ecosystems, in: The American Naturalist, Vol. 118, 6, 1981, p. 886—895, online here (free registration required).
On the independent environmentalists in East Germany, see Beleites, Michael: Die unabhängige Umweltbewegung in der DDR, in: Behrens, Hermann/Hoffmann, Jens (eds.): Umweltschutz in der DDR. Analysen und Zeitzeugenberichte. Vol. 3: Beruflicher, ehrenamtlicher und freiwilliger Umweltschutz, oekom, Munich 2007, p. 197—224 (in German).
You’ll find an interesting study of the early years of the West German Green Party by two political scientists in Frankland, E. Gene/Schoonmaker/Donald: Between Protest and Power. The Green Party in Germany, Westview Press, Boulder, CO/Oxford 1992.