Dirk Steffens: These deniers “had me on the Kieker”

Dirk Steffens is repeatedly faced with hostilities. “The intensity varies, depending on the topic,” explains the TV presenter.

Dirk Steffens has been traveling the world as a science journalist and moderator for several years. Among other things, the 54-year-old is known to a wide audience through the ZDF format “Terra X”. Animal welfare is particularly important to the German conservationist. Many species are threatened with extinction, climate change is changing life on earth.

In his book “Project Future: Big Questions, Clever Minds, Ideas for a Better Tomorrow” (272 pages, 20 euros), which was published by Penguin Verlag on March 21, Steffens spoke to scientists about ten important future topics. In an interview with the news agency spot on news, he revealed which topic moves the TV presenter the most and what he thinks of lateral thinkers. Dirk Steffens also talks about hostilities, homesickness and why traveling doesn’t have to be bad for the environment.

In your new book “Project Future” you discuss ten important future topics with scientists. How did that happen?

Dirk Steffens: I have been meeting researchers for 30 years and have learned everything I need to know for our TV documentaries from them. But there is never enough space in a documentary to fully convey complex relationships and longer trains of thought. This compulsion to be brief has always tormented me a bit. I wanted to let the scientists finish at least once…

In the book you discuss topics such as the dying of the oceans and forests, plagues and when a person is a person. Which of the ten topics moves you the most?

Steffens: The extinction of species, the worst since the dinosaurs disappeared. It is the greatest challenge facing humanity. Climate change only calls into question how we live. The extinction of species calls into question whether we are alive.

Especially during the corona pandemic, science was cast in a bad light by lateral thinkers and the like, and experts were even threatened. Why do you think that is?

Steffens: Lateral and conspiracy thinkers are basically enemies of the system, because they reject everything that makes our society pluralistic, free and adaptable. Because they reject the state, they question the credibility of its institutions. Anyone who thinks that universities, authorities and reputable media are not credible in general is making up their own reality and collecting nonsense facts from nonsense sources. With a matter as complicated and difficult to understand as a viral disease, it is very difficult for many to distinguish between serious and dubious information.

It is all the more important that we journalists do our job well and do not give too much space to confused lateral thinkers in our reporting. That leads to nothing. They are usually not persuaded by factual arguments and only cause fatal confusion. When a maverick says the earth is flat and a geophysicist says it’s a sphere, the truth isn’t somewhere in the middle. It is therefore a cardinal journalistic error to make absurd views part of the public debate. We must not waste our time on the confused because we have more important things to do. More than ever, the world needs reason and a willingness to act.

Have you ever dealt with such hostilities?

Steffens: Sure. From insults to death threats, everything is included. The intensity varies depending on the topic. The climate change deniers had me particularly on the Kieker, but have since become relatively quiet. Opponents of vaccination are now making more noise and have looked for new enemy images, such as the virologist Christian Drosten. Often the same people rant about different topics. Sometimes they get upset about this, sometimes about that. Madness also follows the zeitgeist – the main thing is against it.

So you don’t think deniers of such problems can still be reached?

Steffens: Often unfortunately not. Because opponents of the system, lateral thinkers, conspiracy freaks follow the ideology that the state and institutions lie as a matter of principle and doubt all possible facts without reason. I’m afraid hops and malt are lost there. We had better ask ourselves how we are managing this small but noisy minority, rather than wasting our energies on fruitless attempts at conversion.

You also deal with climate change in your book. Why are so many people closed to it?

Steffens: Because it’s easier to suppress uncomfortable truths than to deal with the often complicated and challenging solutions. Those who like to put their pork neck steak on the grill every day perceive the scientific fact that the high meat consumption in Germany is partly responsible for the climate crisis as a threatening criticism of their lifestyle. And if we’re being honest, each of us has areas where the findings of climate research call for painful self-criticism.

For me and my job, for example, flying is a difficult question. My life would be easier if I said that long-distance flights were not an environmental problem. But they are. However, when they are necessary, things get complicated because there are no simple solutions. But that’s what a lot of people are looking for.

Do you have a guilty conscience because of your CO₂ footprint?

Steffens: Sure. But I try to minimize that by climate-compensating all flights. Although not traveling is not a good solution either, as we saw in the Corona crisis. Without long-distance air travel and tourism, many nature conservation projects around the world cannot be financed at all. The overall ecological benefit of total travel abstinence is questionable.

Your job brings with it many beautiful moments, but also involves a certain risk. How do you deal with that?

Steffens: The most dangerous part of an expedition into the jungle is the drive to the airport. The health risks with an office chair for 30 years are probably significantly higher than in my job, which involves a lot of exercise and fresh air. Poisonous snakes, crocodiles and sharks do not prey on humans. Well, sometimes crocodiles do. Life is life-threatening – no matter what you do.

What do you miss most on your travels and what should never be missing in your suitcase?

Steffens: I always get homesick after two weeks. I never go on a trip without a few good audio books.

What can each individual do specifically so that the next generations can continue to live on earth?

Steffens: Wherever possible, make a decision in favor of sustainability. When eating, traveling, driving, heating, living – simply with everything. But individual eco-heroism is not enough to save the world. We also have to turn the big levers, for example in energy and financial policy. This also requires a new policy.