The climate champion | Global Ideas | DW | 18.07.2012
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Global Ideas

The climate champion

With his organic fastfood chain “Gorilla,“ Matthias Rischau fought valiantly for a eco-friendlier world. His business plan failed, but now he’s trying to paint the world green - one stripe at a time.

Matthias Rischau's initiative is called The Green Path. Photo: Robert Felgentreu

Green Path - Matthias Rischau stands above a portrait

When Matthias Rischau greets you, he has a bowl full of sliced apples and pears ready and waiting on the table - with the promise of more fresh treats on the way. Rischau, who is married with three children, decided to take a leap six years ago and open Berlin’s very first organic fastfood store. It was a hit, and he soon had five branches up and running. The “Gorilla” restaurants featured vegetarian organic fare with produce from local farms. Rischau wanted to improve eating habits while doing his part in the fight against climate change. But three years later, his company went bankrupt. It might have been a combination of factors: maybe Berlin was not quite ready for organic fastfood, or maybe Rischau was too ambitious in his promise to be 100% eco-friendly.

But when it comes to protecting the climate, Rischau simply refuses to make compromises. These days, he’s taking climate change head on - literally. As a performance artist, he uses green face paint, which he calls war paint in the fight for the climate, to inspire others to take action. “People have to learn how to be role models,“he said. His goal is to use cultural change to prevent climate change.

To do that, he organizes public exhibitions where he, his colleague Robert Felgentreu and a few dedicated volunteers try to convince passersby to agree to two things: to make a personal commitment to do something for the climate, and to convince another person to do so, too. Not too long ago, Rischau and his team showed up at a busy shopping area in the German city of Hamburg and put large pictures of their climate warriors on display. Every person who agrees to participate receives their “war paint:” one green stripe on the cheek as proof of their commitment to the climate. Their promises include everything from changing to an eco-friendly energy provider at home to eating less meat and avoiding plastic bags. But if they agree to convince another person to take action, too, they get a matching stripe on the other cheek. Rischau has no way of guaranteeing that those promises are fulfilled, but he says he trusts people to stick to their word and become a role model for others. He calls his initiative “The Green Path.”

He urges his protagonists to send him pictures and document the moment they convince another person to take the Green Path, with green stripes and all.

Passersby in a busy Hamburg shopping area look at „The Green Path“ exhibition. Photo: Robert Felgentreu

Rischau wants to convince people, like these pedestrians in Hamburg, to take action for the climate.

The body art, reminiscent of Native American war paint, is for Rischau a stark reminder of the Wild West and the destruction of American Indian culture. On the street, he poses the question “Indian or cowboy?” to passersby, clearly drawing the line between saving and harming the climate. “People don’t just go around wearing face paint,” said Rischau. That is why he calls the green stripes a “powerful symbol“ in the fight against climate change.

But how can green face paint really make a difference? Rischau say it’s a question he asks himself every day. “It’s like a play where there are only two people in the audience but they clap with gusto,” said Rischau. He says he continues his fight because he is convinced that the world needs a new climate culture, especially because global climate conferences do little to help.

To spark a climate revolution, Rischau says there needs to be more coverage in the media and good role models, putting morality in the spotlight. “Positive reports and role models help heal the soul,” he said

Eating local produce and meat, choosing renewable energy sources, slashing consumption, using trains and bikes instead of cars and planes: Rischau’s demands are not new, but they represent some of the most important steps individuals and families can make. He admits it’s difficult to lead a completely climate-friendly life in today’s world, saying it’s only possible for the homeless he has met who have dropped off the grid and chosen to live in the forest without property or needs. Rischau knows that climate activists, too, have to take planes at times. But he encourages people to make an effort to balance out their carbon footprints by compensating climate offset companies, like Atmosfair. The average European citizen emits 11 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere a year.

A picture of Mike Bonanno from the activist network „The Yes Men“ as he gets his green badge of honor. Photo: Robert Felgentreu

Mike Bonanno from „The Yes Men“ receives his "war paint"

Rischau also believes the ability to make sacrifices is important and can even guarantee a higher quality of life – like riding a bike through a city. Rischau always rides his bike. In the depths of winter when the temperatures plummet below zero, he simply puts on his ski goggles and sets off.

But standing by his beliefs has also made Matthias Rischau a social outsider. “Everything that I find to be important isn't compatible with the mainstream opinion,” he said. He believes his ideas, though, are not nearly as radical as those found in government policy papers or the environment ministry’s brochures. And he says it was the birth of his first child that transformed him from a “hedonist” into a climate activist.

But is it too late to save the climate? Rischau believes it’s not, and he is encouraged by what he sees happening around him in Germany. Even industry heavyweights in the country are implementing eco-friendly standards and turning to renewable energy sources. He believes many Berliners, too, are good green role models. But he says the city can always do more.

“Berlin has to finally become a climate capital and set a goal of becoming a climate-neutral society by the year 2050,” he said.

And every small act will help Berlin realize that ambitious goal, says Rischau. Including every green stripe.

Author: Jan Michael Ihl

Editor: Sumi Somaskanda