Image: Where the Berlin Wall Stood, 1961-1989. Copyright Nancy Lepisto, used by permission
Twenty years after the treaty reuniting Germany was signed, Germany prepares for a celebration. Barely a trace of the original wall can be found now; many tourists enjoying Berlin's reunification festivities are drawn more by its reputation as a cutting-edge party city than by ghosts of the past. Those who seek out museums and memorials emerge from visiting the chilling historical documentation into the light of a major European metropolis. Land reclaimed from where the wall once stood now boasts modern architecture, itself drawing tourists.
But after twenty years, celebration still takes a backseat to analysis. What has been achieved? Is it enough? The questions raised each year as the third of October approaches focus mainly on the economy and integration. The GDP of the former Eastern States has grown from 33.5% in 1991 to 73% of the standard set in the former Western States today. Germany's Chancellor Merkel is an "Ossi," as people who grew up in the GDR are known. But there is another aspect to German reunification that deserves analysis. And celebration.Celebration under the same conditions applied to other questions on progress since the reunification: a lot has been achieved, but is it enough? We are speaking of progress on environmental protection and sustainability.
Reunification Subjects Former East Germans to Environmental Laws
The reunification of East and West, in constitutional terms, was achieved when five formerly Eastern States joined "the area of validity of the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany". At the time of the reunification, that Basic Law included the Waste Disposal Act of 1972, the Federal Control of Pollution Act of 1974, and the Federal Nature Conservation Act of 1976. Shortly thereafter, both old and new States became subject to a new national objective written into the Basic Law (Article 20a): "Acknowledging its responsibility to future generations, the state provides protection for natural resources and animals within the constitution through legislation and in accordance with law in the form of executive authority and the administration of justice".
Major Strides in Pollution Prevention
In the year the wall fell, 1989, the German Democratic Republic emitted 5500 thousand tons of sulfur dioxide, compared with 2345 thousand tons in the Federal Republic of Germany. In addition to a per capita energy consumption 25% higher than West Germans, East Germans relied heavily on high sulfur brown coal, used to produce 70% of the energy consumed in 1989, of course without modern emissions controls. The emissions of this acid rain and industrial smog promotor have been reduced over 90% from the combined emissions at the time of reunification. In the eastern State of Sachsen-Anhalt, the emission levels are only a half to one percent of former levels.
One tragic statistic cited regarding the former Eastern German policies notes that as many as 50% of children in industrial areas suffered from breathing diseases like asthma and allergies. The benefits of improved air quality in reunified Germany are well documented, and a primary source of research attempting to quantify the negative health effects of industrial pollutants.
The Elbe, once known as the most polluted river in Europe, required the invention of a completely new term to describe the level of industrial contamination: "ökologisch zerstört", or "ecologically destroyed." Today, the Elbe once again serves as a home for even the most sensitive species, such as salmon.
The Dark Side of Reunification
Unfortunately, most of the emissions reductions which can be claimed in twenty years of East German citizenship in the united Federal Republic have a simple explanation: industry in the Eastern part of Germany was shut down, often by competitors which bought the plants during the privatization of formerly state-owned concerns. The unemployment rate in the eastern States and the flood of economic migrants from east to west remain among the hottest points debated by those who yearn for the good, old "Trabant days." (Trabants, or "Trabbis," were the folks' wagons of the DDR, at least for the folks lucky enough to rise to the top of the waiting lists).
Every former "Wessi" has contributed to the rapid rebuilding and modernization of the Eastern half by paying the solidarity tax levied on the incomes of all Germans. While great strides have been achieved rebuilding the infrastructure of the eastern States, the great experiment cannot be called a success until the former East Germany can boast an industrial base supporting wage and employment parity with the West.
A Cradle for Green Industries
Germany is often referred to as the economic motor of Europe. The solution for adding East German horsepower to that economic motor lies in the rapid growth of new industries, especially in the green sector. Tax incentives and lower wages have drawn much of the green subsidy monies into the former east, even earning the area on Germany's border with Poland the nickname Germany's "Solar Valley".
So we say: there is a lot to celebrate. Celebrate the progress made. Celebrate where we are going, where we must go. Celebrate solar power. Celebrate wind. Celebrate the people of Germany, who are now united in the fight to protect the precious environment that is shared by all.
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