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From Negotiating to Trading Equitably

The conference in Paris was not the last one where it was negotiated how to trade in order to stay capable of interacting and trading despite violent climatic changes. But what is actually behind the words ‘negotiation’ and ‘trade’? A look into the semantic rucksack.

By Bernd Draser

Translated from German by Jennifer Heger, Sarah Michels and Rebecca Noszvai.


There is no trade without negotiation. Human societies coordinate things with each other when it comes to joint action, even if it is for common trade. It is often said that the survival of human beings was and is only possible because of cooperation – not competition. How capable of interacting and trading a given society remains is a question of negotiation and an understanding of the necessity of trading. No matter what the outcome of the conference in Paris is, human negotiation will essentially dictate the nature of human trade in the coming decades: not only on a local, regional and state level, but also cross-nationally, multinationally and internationally. Even the smallest agreement can have a huge effect. So negotiating in order to trade is reason enough to give a serious thought to trade and negotiation. And the tool of thought is language. It is worth looking at what the words themselves are carrying within them because meaning is always present while talking. Just like a semantic rucksack along the lines of the economic rucksack.


In German, the word for trading (handeln) originally meant to work on an object with your hands. Just as the English word ‘to handle,’ that also bears the connection to the word ‘hand’. The German Anglicism ‘handling’ of a problem is also more complex than one might think. Everything that hands can do is called handling and so in German there is a significant connection to trading. The Latin equivalent is facere. This whole level of meaning carries a pre-industrial connotation and echoes of handiwork still remain. This applies even more to the Greek verb poiein, which specifically means the creative work of craftsmen and artists – thus the word ‘poetry’. 

This is not yet about industrially transforming resources into products, but the perspective is still relevant because it allows a look at a pre-industrial environment that plays a major role in some discourse. This is the romantic notion of sustainability that has its point because after all it was the romantics who developed a distinct awareness of industrialization and its outcome.

A second meaning of the German handeln can be roughly translated to ‘to act’, which closely resembles the Latin agere and the Greek prattein. The initial image is the shepherd driving his flock, urging it to move on. And this driving force, this restless advancement, is completely modern. It is not by accident that many words which are the markers of modern acceleration are rooted in this word agere: ‘agent’, ‘agility’ as well as ‘action’ and ‘act’; ‘practice’ and ‘the practical’ are rooted in the Greek prattein. This restless movement forward, this breathless actionism is the aspect of action that characterizes us as modern humans. It is this kind of self-sustaining, permanently accelerating action that we suffer from, individually, culturally, and ecologically.

The third ??meaning is handeln in the sense of commerce, of buying and selling. The English word ‘trade’ derives from the Latin word tradere, but this is closer to the meaning of the first example, since it calls to mind the action of passing on and handing over from hand to hand. The image of the merchant's handshake might come to mind. However, on a larger economic scale, the meaning derives from the Latin negotiari; we know it from the English word ‘to negotiate’, in German verhandeln. This is a strange verb form: it looks passive, but is used in the active sense. Perhaps in this grammatical form there still lingers a memory of a time when commerce was not yet as driven and restless, as it already seemed in ancient times.

Negotiating human needs

A fourth meaning is important in our context, handeln in terms of a storyline, the plot of a film or a book. A book deals with or is about something, handeln refers to the content, the narration. What are conferences like the one in Paris about, then? Are they about saving the world? No, most certainly not. Or Mother Nature? No, she is not part of the negotiations either. Just like the riddle of the sphinx, which is solved by Oedipus, the negotiations are about us humans. The objective of these negotiations is that we, and future generations, can lead an adequate life. Mankind is the criterion, and human needs were negotiated in Paris.

Again, it is a Greek myth that puts the disproportion of mankind and nature in a nutshell, because we have a Promethean problem. In the legend, it is not Zeus who created mankind, but a stubborn titan named Prometheus who formed humans out of soil and water. In his poem “Prometheus”, Goethe paints this picture: “Here sit I, forming mortals / After my image; / A race resembling me, / To suffer, to weep, / To enjoy, to be glad”. It is the epitome of poiesis, the process of making and producing, and the result is mankind. So far, our actions have not been promethean in a literal sense, i.e. not forward-looking and providing, but rather like Prometheus’ clumsy brother, whom Hesiod calls, “Epimetheus, the thoughtless, who only learns from his own mistakes.”?It is Epimetheus who accepts the gods’ gift of Pandora’s Box, container of the world’s evils, these escape when the Box is opened, and they have plagued humans ever since. 

What counts is the result, not the intention  

We still must take a closer look at ethics and action now as Hesiod calls that same Prometheus, who looks so conscientiously and prudently into the future, the one with the “crooked thoughts,” the intriguer. Since Peter Abelard, an illustrious star of the philosophy world during the high Middle Ages in Paris, in the context of ethics, an action is put in relation to its intention, and by reference to this intention, moral valuations are made. Kant, too, states this in different variations of his categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” That means: in a moral valuation of an action, the result should not count as much as the intention or the maxim. ?That is the completely wrong approach for sustainable development because what counts considering planetary limits, are not maxims, not convictions, not intentions, but only what actually happens. In environmental and climate politics, many of today’s solutions are the problems of tomorrow. The bon mot “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” applies especially in this case. Friedrich Schmidt-Bleek gives a series of examples of such well-intended follies and missteps in his book Green Lies. If any quick prayer had been suitable for negotiations like those in Paris, then it would have been this one: If only God had granted the negotiators the ability to tell the difference between solutions and future problems! ?But how do “acting” and “negotiating” relate to each other? Like “blooming” and “withering?” Or “respecting” and “disrespecting?” Maybe even like “eating” and “devouring?” There are many examples for “negotiating” in terms of “bartering away.” And, as a matter of fact, we still sell many resources below price, or rather at no price, since ecological costs are not even factored into market prices; on the contrary: we pass on the costs to those who will follow and others. Back to Pandora’s Box: Hesiod recounts that after all evils have escaped the box and only hope remains. Well, we still have it. “We’ll always have Paris,” as they say at the end of Casablanca. That should give us some hope. 

Bernd Draser teaches philosophy at the Ecosign-Academy in Cologne, Germany. He often writes philosophical introductions to factory topics, most recently “Can a donkey be tragic?” in the factory magazine Rebound.

More articles to the topics of Trade, Action and Debate are not only online but in our factory-magazine Action and Trade which can be downloaded for free. This is as always finely illustrated and good readable on tablet-computers and screens – and contains all articles and images as even additional numbers and citations.

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