03 August 2011

David MacBryde : In Germany, Power (Grid) to the People!

The German daily Die Tageszeitung humorously splashed on their front page a decades old archive photo of environmental pioneers. The headline: "This is what winners look like."

Power (grid) to the people!
Germany's 'great transformation'

By David MacBryde / The Rag Blog / August 3, 2011

BERLIN -- In Germany the decision has just been made to shut down ALL nuclear power plants by 2022. This is broadly seen here as a major step in the "great transformation" away from economic activity that endangers and depletes future opportunities and towards activities that achieve sustainable energy and value creation.

During the debate in the German Parliament about energy, Renate Kunast (of the German Green Party) began her presentation by thanking a number of persons by name for their pioneer work decades ago.

Before writing about developments in Germany, I too want to express thanks – for decades of hard work -- to Rag Blog contributor Ray Reece, author of The Sun Betrayed, Gail Vittori and Pliny Fisk at the Center for Maximum Potential, Scott Pittman, founder of the Permaculture Institute, recently interviewed by Thorne Dreyer on Rag Radio, and of course many, many others.

The decision just made in Germany will have an effect on physics, economic activity, politics, philosophy, and more.

The main breakthrough here that I want to focus on – and this gets to my headline of "Power to the People" -- is what is called the "Einspeisungsgesetzgebung.” That is a (typically German) very long word which refers to the legislative achievement by Jurgen Trittin (of the German Greens) when he was Minister for the Environment and got -- in coalition with the SPD (the Social Democratic Party) -- majority approval for an energy policy that enables decentrally-produced energy to be fed into the (at the time not-yet-so-smart) grid.

There are several points here:
  1. Physical: The legislation enables the transformation of power lines away from one-way transmission and into being a genuine interactive network.
  2. Economic: This opens opportunities for decentralized power production. And it is a significant step in the very large scale transformation from using up depletable energy to using sustainable, renewable, energy.
  3. The politics of power and power politics: In Germany four energy corporations effectively had (note the past tense) oligopolistic power, both in controlling energy and politically controlling energy policy.
  4. Philosophy: (I will focus on this in this article) "Ontology" is a technical philosophical term for the study of what "is" is -- thus raising the question, "What is reality?"
It can be helpful to distinguish between an "impoverished ontology" that only handles a single kind of reality and an "enriched ontology" that can handle a variety of kinds of reality.

In this context we can more specifically ask, What "is" economic growth?

And we can enrich our understanding if we ask, "What kinds of economic growth are helpful, what kinds are harmful? And for whom? And who gets to participate in decisions about that?

The recent decisions made in Germany are part of what here is called the "great transformation" away from "growth" that actually depletes future opportunities to growth that enhances future opportunities.

Mrs. Elanor Ostrom, recent recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, was honored for her work looking at how economic decisions are made. She received a great ovation at her recent talk at the Technical University in Berlin.

Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom. Photo by Ric Cradick / Indiana Public Media.

Elanor Ostrom is a rather jovial economist. Her main point is that even if the economy is very dismal, it does not have to be so.

Her scientific work focuses less on developing abstract mathematical models of the economy than it does on actually looking at how and by whom decisions are made.

Her main breakthrough -- for which she received the Nobel Prize -- was to point out that what had, in the history of economics, been called "the tragedy of the commons" -- did not have to be tragic.

You can get Ostrom's insight by first imagining a number of people fishing in a river or ocean. If each fisher maximized his or her catch it might well be possible to over-fish and maybe even exterminate the species. That might destroy future opportunities for future generations.

Ostrom does NOT argue that disasters cannot happen. There are plenty of historical examples of unsustainable overuse. She does argue that such disasters are not always "necessary" or absolutely unavoidable. In her research she finds plenty of examples where a number of different people do succeed in getting their acts together for sustainable fishing.

The classical definition of "tragedy" in old Greek plays involves the audience seeing a disaster necessarily, unavoidably, coming. This is contrasted to "comedy,” which refers to a play with a happy, successful, resolution.

Ostrom herself, perhaps wisely, does not in every case presume that a happy ending can be achieved -- she prefers the term "Drama of the Commons.” Situations in which a number of different people do achieve a common solution can involve potential for disaster and considerable drama.

At the present time in the USA there certainly seems to be considerable drama about decision-making.

In Germany decisions on energy policy certainly have involved lots of drama. But the result is a "comedy" in the classical sense of achieving a positive solution. Though it was initiated by the German Greens, in coalition with the SPD (Social Democratic Party), the decision was also supported by a majority of the conservative party (CDU, Christian Democratic Party).

The drama here was intense, especially because of the huge crisis in the capital markets.

There had been lots of hard work over decades (see again the above picture of pioneers) with considerable success, including the breakthrough "Einspeisungsgesetzgebung" for decentralized energy production. Then the man-made capital market crisis hit.

I was very worried, as were many others here, that the reaction to the capital market crisis would derail developments.

Around the September 2008 emergency actions -- such as Paulson's panicky punt with his three-page policy paper -- there were emergency efforts around the world, from Berlin to Brazil and Beijing.

The question was would we get an I V U W or L, or get to an E. (These are shapes of economic "growth" curves. I will write an update to my earlier Rag Blog post on this subject.)

Briefly here: In the capital market crisis Germany did take actions and did not collapse straight down (an "I") and is now booming, relatively speaking -- not improving as rapidly as Latin America or some countries in Africa and Asia, but rather well.

There was considerable worry that Germany might get stuck in an "L" -- a downturn and a long lack of "recovery.”

Now it does look like Germany, especially with the decisions on energy policy, is back on the track to its "great transition" -- to get to an "E."

The core reality of the success here is that a very broad majority of the people and their parliamentarians now see clearly that the large transformation away from environmental depletion and towards environmental viability is crucial to reducing harmful kinds of economic "growth" and to achieving helpful kinds of economic growth.

And it is now broadly clear here, including within the large German Protestant and Catholic churches, that "social fairness" is not hot air but a significant moral compass and, particularly at this time, a prerequisite for domestic economic development. A range of modest but real wage increases have already been achieved and are helping to stabilize and improve domestic demand.

We will see whether these particular decisions succeed in avoiding tragedy and achieving some comedy. In any case it is dramatic. I will try to write more about what I see happening here.

[Rag Blog Berlin correspondent David MacBryde worked with Austin's Sixties underground newspaper, The Rag. See more articles by David MacBryde on The Rag Blog.]

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