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Carl von Siemens, how can we save the world?

May 19, 2020
topics: Sustainable Development
located in: Germany, Australia, Brazil, China, USA
tags: Amazonas, Siemens

The author and traveller Carl von Siemens is the great-great-great-grandson of the famous company founder. He has had a somewhat special experience when once vehemently voicing criticism against the corporation’s business policy.

By Stefan Stahl

Carl von Siemens stands in line in front of Café Einstein in Berlin. He is patiently waiting for a free table to do this interview. It is one of the blissful days just before the initial restrictions in the wake of the Coronavirus crisis; when people could still meet each other as usual. The great-great-great-grandson of Siemens founder Werner von Siemens has just come back from a trip to India. Perhaps this might result in a new book. In his latest work, “Der Tempel der magischen Tiere” (The Temple of the Magic Animals), the journalist and writer described his travels to indigenous people, spirits and shamans, including Aborigines in Australia, a country that has caused Siemens quite some trouble. After all, climate activists criticise that the company continues to deliver signalling systems for trains that are to transport coal from a new mine there.

Mr. von Siemens, you already voiced major criticism in 2015 against the dam project “Belo Monte” in Brazil. This is a project that Siemens is involved in, via Voith Hydro, a joint venture with the company Voith. What triggered your criticism?

Carl von Siemens: This story was like a systemic shock to me. In 2013, on a trip to the Amazon region, I decided to devote more attention to my own roots, which include my extended family and the company our ancestors founded. That is why I went to a Siemens annual shareholders’ meeting in January 2014 for the first time in a long while.

What do you mean by systemic shock?

At the shareholders’ meeting, a woman from Amazonia — of all places — made an appearance and denounced the Siemens managing board for turning a blind eye to what the dam was doing to her homeland.

And I just came back from the region! The woman’s message was a decisive experience for me, which really shook me. I perceived it as a call to have a closer look at the project.

What did you do?

In my capacity as a member of the founding family, I contacted environmental protection organisations and forwarded dossiers about Belo Monte to Siemens. After I realised that these reports would eventually end up in some drawer, at least for the time being, I travelled to Amazonia myself, as a journalist, in the fall of 2014. After my research, I took a position against projects of this kind in 2015.

How did the company take this?

I don’t know because I don’t work for Siemens. However, I found it very disappointing that Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser responded to a question from Greenpeace at the 2016 annual stockholders’ meeting by saying that he would continue to participate in dam projects in Amazonia if customers demanded this.

Just like in Australia today, many companies are involved in the dam project in Brazil. But Siemens appears to always take the major blame, like a representative for all the other companies. Isn’t that unfair?

In a way, yes. Siemens only has a 35 percent stake in Voith Hydro. The rest is held by Voith. The latter company earns 65 percent of the profits. But since it is not listed on the stock exchange and has no annual stockholders’ meeting, most of the criticism has been directed at Siemens. Something similar has happened with the justified criticism of climate protectionists directed against the Carmichael coal mine in Australia. In this case, Siemens as a subcontractor has been targeted - and the Indian Adani Group as the major client and developer has been largely spared, it seems.

Nonetheless, you have shown your sympathy for the Fridays for Future movement, and also took to the streets together with the young people.

Yes, I did so because I think the cause of the movement is right. They justify their strikes with the question: Why should we go to school if we have no future? Conceptually, this is a crystal-clear and very relevant argument. However, there is only one Friday a week, and I have sometimes wondered whether young people really had to use [this one day] for demonstrations against the delivery of a signalling system. This gave the public the wrong impression that Siemens — and not Adani — built the mine.

It is also a communication failure by Siemens, though.

Criticism against Siemens is always also criticism against the system. I sometimes have the impression that the company is criticised on behalf of other companies. Or people believe that they are attacking the system when they attack Siemens. That is like trying to harm the football club FC Bayern by burning a straw doll with a Bavarian hat in your backyard. It just does not work. That being said, as bearer of the name Siemens, I would definitely like the company to assess the reputation risks of such projects more realistically in the future. In a wrong project, a subcontractor is a part of the problem just as well, and not part of the solution.

Who do you address – or oppose – if you want to save the world like the Fridays-movement wants to? Corporations or governments?

If we want to save the world, it is secondary whether Siemens or someone else supplies a signalling system. The more decisive point is: How do we deal with democratically elected governments like the Australian one, but also the US or Brazilian governments, which pursue policies that we deem environmentally unfriendly or hostile?

Well, how should we deal with such governments?

I believe in the primacy of politics. Governments could, after appropriate discussions in parliaments, for instance impose sanctions on countries that damage the environment. A company like Siemens should not make political decisions, not least because it is just not set up to do so. As I see it, a CEO like Joe Kaeser has formal obligations towards customers, employees and shareholders, but does not have a legal obligation to comply with the goals of the Paris Climate Convention. First of all, the system must change. Only then come companies like Siemens which have prospered in different systems: Kingdom, empire, dictatorship and democracy.

However, many companies are currently calling for even stricter measures to protect the climate than the [German] federal government does. There is obviously something wrong.

Given the dramatic nature of the current situation, governments like ours should actually have to take drastic decisions. But they don’t - probably for fear of upsetting interest groups and stakeholders, among other reasons. So, the question is: Are democracies capable of accomplishing the systemic change to a CO2-free economy and of stopping the extinction of species and the destruction of natural habitats?

Do you think they are?

Democracies now have one big rival – namely China. This authoritarian country tries to re-educate its citizens with a system of social points: Certain behaviour is rewarded with points, other behaviour is punished by point deduction. With the help of Artificial Intelligence and surveillance, the “environmental behaviour” of people could also be controlled in the future. It is conceivable, for example, that people who emit too much CO2 receive a lower pension, have their passports taken away, or not be allowed to travel.

This would be a genuine eco-dictatorship. Don’t you think there is a somewhat more humane approach possible in free societies?

Of course I hope that liberal democracies win this competition in the fight against the climate disaster! My hope is also based on the conviction that we can only manage system change through technical innovation. And innovations cannot be planned, neither by central committees nor by algorithms.

Another issue is the credibility of institutions. Just think about the difficulties that China had when the Coronavirus broke out. In our society, a free press can conduct research without being harassed; non-governmental organisations and opposition parties are allowed to discuss findings and events as they see fit. In China, the party has the final say, which means that all those involved have handed over their responsibility upwards. Greta Thunberg could not have appeared or existed in China. She is the most un-Chinese young woman in the world.

Authoritarian regimes like China appear to be more effective and thus successful in combating the virus than free and liberal states are…

The propaganda battle is already looming, but it is too early to really assess the outcomes [of the pandemic]. How do we know that the Chinese figures are correct? In addition, the Chinese government appears to have used measures like forced isolation and abductions to combat the virus. This raises new questions: what forms of freedom do we want? What is freedom worth? Is it morally justifiable to sacrifice the health of the few for the freedom of the many?

So, how can we save the environment?

I believe in the power of role-models and examples. Germany is capable of exporting more than just combustion engines, armoured infantry fighting vehicles and signalling equipment. There’s room for improvement. We could export actual solutions against the environmental crisis, for example. If Germany succeeds in bringing about its energy turnaround, this will also have an impact on other countries. On the other hand: If we, as a highly industrialised, politically stable country, cannot come up with answers and solutions, then who will?

Could we maybe learn from indigenous peoples like the Aborigines about how to make the world a better place?

I for my part have learned that we need new teachers if we are to make the world a better place. The old teachers are not getting us anywhere because they do not find an answer or solution to the ecological crisis.

What defines or makes indigenous peoples potential “new teachers”?

We can deduce a unique perspective for environmental protection from their spirituality. Because these people believe that everything around them is animated and has a soul, including plants and animals. Therefore, plants and animals also have rights. This leads to a different attitude and consciousness. We will not and cannot find solutions to the environmental crisis through anthropocentric thinking. The world is not only meant for humans alone.

Translated by Tim Steins

This interview was shortened and appeared first on Augsburger Allgemeine.

Carl von Siemens, 52, studied philosophy, political science, economics and business administration at Trinity College in Oxford, the London School of Economics and Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich. He was also a management consultant as well as managing director of a web agency in Hamburg.

Germany Australia Brazil China USA
"At the shareholders’ meeting, a woman from Amazonia - of all places - made an appearance and denounced the Siemens managing board for turning a blind eye to what the dam was doing to her homeland."
"I found it very disappointing that Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser responded to a question from Greenpeace at the 2016 annual stockholders’ meeting by saying that he would continue to participate in dam projects in Amazonia if customers demanded this."
"I traveled to Amazonia myself, as a journalist, in the fall of 2014. After my research, I took a position against projects of this kind in 2015."