Tiled Stoves

Tiled Stoves: in apartments and homes, to burn coal, in order to produce heat.

Use resources respectfully, protect the environment. I recall the debates in Germany years ago about recycling. At that time the Social Democrats and the Greens were in power. Jürgen Trittin was Umweltminister, literally Secretary of the Environment. 

German business was against any recycling laws. It’s been reality for years now, though. How could there have been a debate at all? Quite the contrary. Protecting the environment should be foundational to the politics of the Christian Democratic Party in Germany (CDU). They and their sister party in Bavaria (CSU – Christian Social Union) were clearly on the wrong side of that debate.

I’ll never forget the smell of coal back then in West Berlin. Late Fall of 1988. I live in a boathouse in Konradshöhe, on the Havel River, on the other side the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik, German Democratic Republic). No wall between, just the river. On the other side a strange stillness. Just a road along the bank and streetlights giving off a weak, halfhearted yellow-orange glow. Evenings and mornings the smell was strong. A weird feel to it, somehow historical.

My girlfriend then lived in the Schöneberg section of West Berlin. On the fifth or sixth floor of an apartment house built in the early 1900s. Back then I was reading Sebastian Haffner’s Deutsche Revolution 1918. Dry cold days in Berlin, the smell of coal smoke from the houses ever-present, Rosa Luxemburg murdered and thrown into the Spree River, Stahlhelm, Rätherrepublik in Munich. I think of my grandmother who back then was eighteen years old and living in Cincinnati.

I imagine what Berlin was like in 1918 and 1919. I, the grandson and great-grandson of coal merchants in Philadelphia. Our great-grandfather, Alexander Magee, started out with a horse-pulled wagon, going from house to house. Years later his sons, Frank and Alex, would join the business. I see the images in my mind’s eye. The coalyard in the Kensington section of Philadelphia located right next to the train line.

The coal was delivered from Northeast Pennsylvania. The Allegheny Mountains cut through the state from the northeast to the southwest, continuing into West Virginia. The business grows a bit, two trucks, a handful of employees. They’re not wealthy, will never become so. They pay the bills and have more than enough left over.

After the Second World War they convert to oil. Magee Coal & Oil. During my father’s freshman year at Amherst College in Massachusetts his father dies of a heart attack. His younger brother, Ken, uncle to my father, takes over the business. My father does not go into the heating fuel business, instead becoming a business consultant.

We six children of Frank and Laura Magee growing up in suburban Philadelphia have no connection to Magee Coal & Oil. But the constant coal odor in Berlin during those winter months of 1988-89, the dirt in my nose, cleaning it out a few times a day, brought me back into contact with the days when my recent ancestors lived from coal. And today? I, management consultant, put food on the table by supporting those who build coal-fired power plants.

Use resources respectfully, protect the environment, yes, the Germans do that better than the Americans. The war ended more than seventy years ago, but those experiences continue to inform and form us. During a long walk through Bonn with my son I try to describe to him what the town looked like in 1945. I repeat the stories of his German great-grandmother – my ex-wife’s grandmother. And why we are taking a walking and not driving tour by car or bus. Besides, walking is healthy.

Efficient products

Automobiles: Germans like to drive powerful, fast cars and are proud of their Autobahn with its lack of speed limits. At the same time they like to save money. This is reflected in their cars. Over the last twenty years the fuel efficiency of German cars has increased by 20%, while doubling their horsepower.

The VW Lupo 3L TDI is a case in point. It is the first mass produced car which can go 100 kilometers on 3 liters or less fuel, while maintaining the power of others compact cars.

The entire German car industry is constantly increasing the efficiency of its production methods. Most produce only 30-40% of the final product. The rest is developed and manufactured by a complex, sophisticated network of specialized suppliers, many of whom are located right next to their German customers.

Residential homes: Germans focus on building homes which maximize space. German houses tend to be small, certainly in comparison to homes in the U.S., which are twice the size.

German homes are built, and renovated, with an eye on energy conservation. Insulation and electricity efficiency are two of the key goals. And the German government supports these with generous subsidies via the KfW, Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau, the Bank for Reconstruction, founded in 1948.

This is especially the case with new construction and renovations, with the KfW offering ten different types of financial support linked to new efficiency technologies. All loans have borrowing rates guaranteed to be lower than the rate of inflation. In some situations, families receive cash payouts as subsidies.

Particularly popular, and subsidized by the government, are solar panels, which save electricity and reduce Germany‘s dependence on electricity produced by fossil fuels.

Water consumption: Since the 1980s ecological groups have been campaigning for less water use, in order to protect the environment and save money. Since then water conservation has become common in Germany. The manufacturers of showers, faucets, toilets, washers, dishwashers and other household appliances have developed and brought to market highly efficient products.

German households save so much water that waste water systems have difficulty keeping themselves clean due to too little waste water moving through the system. Local water works often need to flush through extra amounts of water in order to keep the system clean.

Three inches high

Horst Brandstätter, the founder of Playmobil, dies at 81.

“Although a billionaire by the end of his life, he was a world champion in economizing, the younger Mr. Brandstätter (son Conny) said, citing as an example his father’s insistence on using cheap packs of cards for his favorite card game.

Mindful of his cash flow as the world oil crisis drove up the cost of plastics in the 1970s, Mr. Brandstätter summoned his chief designer and asked him to come up with toys that would use less plastic.

Mr. Beck came up with Playmobil, whose miniature models and environments are said to have been inspired by children’s drawings and the figurines of traditional Christmas crèches. At about 3 inches high, the figures have round faces, movable arms and legs, and hands that can grasp a pirate’s sword, a carpenter’s saw or a firefighter’s hose.”

Source: New York Times, June 11, 2015. By Alison Smale

Ecological Awareness

The Germans think ecologically. They not only draw on their resources sparingly, they also try to limit the negative effects of that use. Although Germany has a high population density, it has managed to declare almost 3% of its land as publicly-protected national parks, far above the average within the EU.

Many laws have been passed to protect the environment, including strict recycling laws for bottles, cans and other packaging material. Those who can afford it choose to buy organic food.

The Germans find more and more ways to save electricity and water, both of which are expensive. As of October 2012 only energy-saving lightbulbs can be sold. The stores offer only energy-saving lamps and lighting fixtures.

German awareness of the environment gave rise to the Green Party in the 1970s, which has developed into a major political force in Germany, and recently was the junior partner in the government with the Social Democrats. Ecological concerns have become common in all German political parties.

More with Less

“Get more done with less.” An intelligent use of resources also aims to maintain balance. Germans try to avoid ‘heading down the wrong path’, especially ‘betting everything on one hand’. Instead, they try to view an individual decision in the broader context of factors and resources. Achieving more with less is a defensive approach.

Decision making latitude. Germans do their best to maintain broad latitude in their decision making, whether it be in companies, families or the government at all levels. They want to make decisions freely, not be forced to make them.

Germans strive to keep as many options open as possible, knowing well that every decision leads to action, which in turn draws on valuable resources: time, budgets, material, manpower. And because revising decisions further depletes resources, Germans try to make the right decision from the start.

Thrifty. The German people are thrifty. The national debt per person is far lower than in Europe’s southern countries and clearly lower than in the U.S.. Private household debt is considered to be a character weakness, of poor planning, an inability to manage a budget. State agencies stand ready at any time to advise German citizens on how to get their personal finances in order.

Exact calculation. Germans are known to calculate ‘with a sharp pencil’. Whether it be the mother of a family, the Chief Financial Officer of a German small-to-medium sized company or a civil servant in the local tax office, the Germans calculate precisely what costs how much, when, with what affect on the overall budget.

Germans speak of the schwäbische Hausfrau, the Swabian mother and head of the household. Swabians are known within German for being especially thrifty. They are the model for financial conservatism, for avoiding non-essentials, for holding on to their money, for saving.

Mother of Invention

‘Not macht erfinderisch’ or “necessity is the mother of invention”. Not – necessity – forces one to become creative, to work in a disciplined way, to draw on resources carefully. Process oriented thinking is the logical response to working with limited resources. One could say “necessity is the mother of processes”.

The most popular kind of food in Germany is the potato. Imported from Latin America at the end of the 1700s in response to severely limited food supplies in Germany, the potato was a perfect fit: has high nutritional content, grows in poor soil, is resilient in erratic climates.

It was the Prussian king who had heard about the oddly shaped vegetable. At first the German people did not respond to the potato, even though hunger had become widespread. The king decided to appeal to the inclination of his subjects to challenge authority.

Fences were built around the potato fields, guards were posted. The people became curious. It didn’t take long for the first thieves to recognize the value and versatility of the potato. Today’s German cuisine could not exist without that once strange object from a far away land.

Resource Comparison

If America represents a society of excess, then Germany can be viewed as representing one which may not have deficits, but knows its limits. 

The U.S. has 15x as much natural gas, 5x as much crude oil, 4x as much coal, and 5x as many renewable water resources. And the list goes on. 

In the year 2000, the annual use of gasoline per capita in the USA was 1,633 liters versus just 450 in Germany, electricity use was 13,672 versus 6,680 kwh.

As far as space is concerned, the numbers grow incomperable. With its 9.63 million km², the U.S. is 27x larger than Germany with its 357,000 km². 

The state of Texas alone is nearly twice as large, having 678,000 km², California with 411,000 km² and Montana 381,000 km². My home state of Pennsylvania is already 1/3 the size of Germany with its 117,000 km².

All of this impacts the population density. In Germany, an average population density per km² is 231, in Northrhine-Westphalia, the most populous state, that number more than doubles to 530. 

In the U.S., the figure lies at a mere 31. But let us examine the development o fthis number over the past 200 years: in 1800, there were 2.5 people per km², in 1850 3,5/km², 1900 8,0/km², and by 1950 still only 17 persons per km².


Germans are very conservative with their resources. Waste is proof of poor and improper work, which has lost sight of what is important. This is why decision-making processes should incorporate a clear and well-defined plan for resource management.

The process of making a decision requires its own resources as well, (work, materials, time, etc.) and takes place in a context which is very much confined by the resources available, resources which must also be calculated into the process implementing the decision.

The German figure of speech ‘Not macht erfinderisch‘ – need makes one inventive – is a fitting: Being in need may lead one to become more creative and discover hidden connections, but it also enforces disciplined and effective use of available resources. These frugal tendencies strongly complement a process-oriented approach; both tendencies are different sides of the same coin.

A further important point of contrast becomes clear, when considering that the conservative use of resources also reflects a desire to keep things in balance. One doesn’t want to go rushing off in the wrong direction, ‘alles auf eine Karte setzen‘ – to bet it all on one card. Rather, one should always view important decisions within the economical context of labor and resources in its entirety. He or she who can ‘make more from less’ has successfully internalized this defensive principle.