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We have to do this, we have to do that

Felix Jansen, Expo Real 2023

I’m getting tired of hearing it. Anyone who, like me, is strongly committed to more sustainability on the one hand and moderates discussion groups quite frequently on the other, encounters it again and again: this annoying “we have to”. My theory: It’s of no use to anyone. Except perhaps those who say it.

But let’s take it one step at a time. Last week, I had the privilege of moderating two rounds at the Expo Real real estate and investor fair. In principle, they went well and were entertaining – at least that was the feedback I received afterwards. And to a large extent I would agree with that. If it weren’t for the unkindness that tends to run rampant at such panels.

We have to do more, they say. We have to act faster. We have to do whatever. To make sure that the urgency of the “we must” really gets through, the voice rises, it becomes louder and more insistent. Because we have to. And everyone should finally understand.

Who is “we” in the “we must” appeal?

But does any of it get through? I don’t think so. Instead, a phrase has burned itself in there that somehow sounds important, but accomplishes nothing except a good feeling for those who said it. In my opinion, this is especially true when another phenomenon is added: when the questions asked are not answered at all. After a half-sentence on the question, then comes a “What else I wanted to say” and off it goes, the appeal for whatever. The internal pressure to get rid of the pent-up “we have to” seems too great.

“So what, what is he trying to tell us here?” you may ask. My firm conviction is that this “we must” achieves nothing. Because who exactly is meant by “we”? An undefined group of people. But does it mean me, the listener? And if so, am I of all people the person who has to? Someone in this “we” construct will care, won’t they? A group in which you can hide perfectly well. You can’t solve it on your own anyway. And the fact that the appeal is usually aimed at something unspecific at the meta level makes things even more difficult.

Sustainability needs real action

DGNB publication title "Guide to climate-positive building stock"

If you want to do something right now, you will find numerous starting points, such as in the DGNB publication “Guide to climate-positive building stock” at

The issues of sustainability and climate protection need real action. Or more precisely, people who actually take action, who rethink their actions and make them better. In their own personal degree of effectiveness. Here and now and not sometime in the distant future. It’s not about making everything perfect right away. But it is always about making things a little bit better.

And without a doubt, each of us needs those moments when something clicks. When we question ourselves and start doing things better. Perhaps also because others inspire and convince us. But that certainly doesn’t happen with a loud “We have to”. Rather with fingers (or better yet, whole hands) that are placed in wounds. With mirrors that are held up unsparingly. That make the listeners leave their comfort zone for a moment. Situations that lead to a critical questioning of oneself and one’s own actions.

For me, a presentation or a lecture is successful if even one person from the audience comes to me afterwards and seeks an exchange. Because I have hit a sore spot. Because it clicked. I have never succeeded with “We have to”.

If some of you who are reading this ask for it at the next event and are not satisfied with empty “We must” exhortations echoing around the room, something would already have been achieved. Ask: Who is this “we” exactly? Who is really acting? And what specifically happens next so that what “we must” becomes reality. For less blah-blah on the podiums.

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