bio cult(ure)

Sometimes the simplest, everyday things of life in Germany make me think about cultural differences. Take trash, for instance. One of the things I had to get used to in Germany was separating trash. Paper, compost, metal, green glass, brown glass, white glass, plastic, and all the rest. In my first year here, I had to ask all the time about where to sort things. A tea bag, for instance, has a paper tag and bag, it’s filled with tea, which belongs in the compost, the string might go in the “rest” bin, and the tiny metal staple connecting the tag to the string would go in the metal bin. (This is just theoretical… no, we don’t separate all these tiny parts…)

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We have 4 recycling stations like this within close walking distance from home.

At our apartment now, they only pick up paper, compost, and the rest, so we collect the metal, glass, and plastic all together and carry it to large recycling bins down the street and separate it there.

This everyday practice has become second nature to me, and I think it is representative of a larger cultural phenomenon in Germany: Bio- and Öko-leben. Organic and eco-friendly living. Germany is really green.

In my lifetime, mainstream consciousness and acceptance of environmentalism, organic foods, conservation of resources, recycling, etc. in the US has grown. It’s not just for hippie tree-huggers anymore.

In Germany, however, green-ness is just on a whole other level. There’s a matter-of-factness to it. It’s everywhere you look, a ubiquitous part of the culture. Organic groceries, wine, cheese manufacturers, restaurants, cleaning products, toiletries, eco-friendly mattresses, furnishings, clothing, etc…

Of course, there’s been a lot of work on the governmental, economic level to introduce green policies and incentives (like paying folks for the energy produced by solar panels on their roofs). But as a newcomer here, what strikes me most is the accessibility. The trash separation is a good example. The infrastructure is in place for everybody to sort their trash. There’s really no excuse not to.

In some parts of Munich, there are more Biomärkte (organic grocery stores) than “regular” grocery stores. In our not-very-affluent part of town, we have just gotten a new Biomarkt, and the “regular” grocery store we go to has a large bio section. Organic food isn’t hard to come by.

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Typical contents of one week’s Ökokiste

Even in an urban area, it’s easy to have access to fresh, organic, local foods. We get a box of food delivered to our house every week from Tagwerk Ökokiste, an organization that connects local & regional farmers/food producers with urban customers, delivering the food right to your door. Sort of in the same vein of a CSA. We love this – the surprise of what comes each week and the challenge of cooking with unique vegetables… Admittedly, we got really tired for cabbage and carrots in the winter.

And with much more ease than in the US, I can live out my desire and (sometimes, admittedly, weak) commitment to purchase fair trade coffee and chocolate here in Germany. Do I sometimes buy the non-fair trade chocolate anyways? Yes. But in my “regular” grocery store, I have a choice of 19 different kinds of fair trade chocolate and 25 varieties of fair trade coffee. (I just counted.) It’s cool that I don’t have to go to a special shop to find these products. And more often than not, the labels “fair” and “bio” correspond. Good for people and the earth.

In Germany there’s sort of a general level of cultural acceptance toward the green movement. People ride their bicycles and the bus. They bring their own cloth bags grocery shopping. Quinoa and spelt are easy to come by. Green is mainstream. And I’m grateful for the access.

But I also feel some cognitive dissonance, because I know that there’s a certain elitism to shopping eco-friendly. Those ethically-produced boots are expensive. That coffee is 6 Euro a bag and not 4. The geography of the Biomarkt says a lot: they are all over the affluent neighborhoods… less so in my colorful immigrant neighborhood. Organic/eco-friendly products are SO widely accessible here, but some folks are still excluded.

And in one exceptional instance I know of, the “green movement” has been taken to a level that (I think) negates all the things that are good and important about conscious consumerism.

The cult of bio… There’s a religious sect in Bavaria based on spiritual-environmental teachings. The “Universal Life” sect has little shops where they sell their organic food products. On the surface, their products look like good, whole-foods. They advertise “vegetarian and vegan products for people with gourmet taste.” I pass by one of their shops all the time.

When I found out that there was a religious group behind these shops, I was amused. Then I read a report from the mainline Lutheran church about the sect, and I was alarmed.

According to that report, customers who buy the “Gut zum Leben” products are – usually unbeknownst to them – supporting a totalitarian group. This group has a prophet, whose core message is about an end-times catastrophe. The members of the group will, of course, survive the catastrophe and live in “New Jerusalem,” their organic-farm-paradise in rural Bavaria. The members are required to sign over all of their possessions and money to the sect and work in a form of modern-day slavery on the farm and in their shops. (And, of course, someone has to be getting rich from it all.)

You can see their self-representation here and read a critical assessment in English here. Form your own opinion. 😉

My thought? Green gone too far.

When I started this reflection, I didn’t mean to end on such a sinister note, but I think it reveals the wide and wild variety of expressions of the green movement in Germany. It’s by no means a comprehensive analysis; rather, it’s my musings on the mainstream and the extreme. Fascinating stuff to me. What do you think?

To read some of my thoughts on organic/environmentally friendly food and food-access in relationship to poverty from a Christian-ethics perspective, check out this previous post from 2011.

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