Donnerstag, Juli 02, 2009

Is America Turning German?

There's an interesting article in today FAZ by Arnulf Baring. Unfortunately, it's behind their firewall (and it's only in German), but you can find it here.

Arnulf Baring is a German historian of some note, the article is a shortened speech he gave at the 50th anniversary of the founding of German Atom Forum (Deutsches Atomforum) last Wednesday in Berlin. I looked at their web site to see if I could get the full text, but it's not available (or at least I didn't see it).

Atomic energy, nuclear energy, electrical energy from nuclear fission, plays an important role in German energy supplies, but is, per decret, due to be phased out because ...

Ahh, there's the hitch. There really isn't any "because".

Baring points it out this way (my quick and dirty translation):

Scarcely any other theme has led to such permanently disjointed and bitter controversy as the peaceful use of nuclear energy. No other debate reflects societal and political differences in Germany. In order to better understand the history of the Federal Republic it is useful to see how this split developed. Positions weren't as radical and divisive as they are now in the past, and indeed at first the peaceful use of nuclear energy was greeted with euphoria. That changed. This change is especially interesting amongst the Social Democrats. The discussion in the SPD and the political stance of the Greens bears close resemblance to the German tendency to deny reality, which has always been dangerous to Germany.

The SPD is the German Social Democratic Party.

To quickly paraphrase what Baring says: following Eisenhower's Atoms For Peace speech, Germans were excited by the idea of using nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, especially the radical left and opponents of NATO. Those who weren't so keen were the electrical energy providers, since fossil fuels were plentiful and cheap, the problem of radioactive waste wasn't solved and massive investments were required.

This euphora continued until even after the first oil shock of 1973: the left in Germany wanted to create independence by massively expanding nuclear energy use.

There was opposition: the usual NIMBY protests that were largely ignored or bought off.

This changed in 1975: opponents in Whyl, in Baden, were able to demonize nuclear energy by basically saying that radioactive steam would ruin the local wine. The SPD, which was in power then, tried to get the discussion back to the facts, but failed.

Why? The first critics of growth had appeared: if economic growth needs nuclear energy, then it is better to give up that growth than it is to use nuclear energy. Nuclear energy became, effectively, a symbol for capitalism and capitalist society.

Opposition to nuclear energy became hence a symbol of a new way of thinking, a new way of experiencing, a new way of life. Since this point in time, the discussion about nuclear energy has become, effectively poisoned by ideological debate about the appropriate business and society models that Germany should be following.

The Greens, founded in 1980, are the living incorporation of this.

In 1984 the SPD broke with its own history and became the party of nuclear opposition, after it lost the chancellorship to Helmut Kohl and the German conservative parties. Rejection of nuclear energy became a dogma for the SPD, something that bore no political scrutiny and brooked no political compromise.

When you become dogmatic, refusing to rethink your position on a subject despite changes, you deny reality, you state effectively that your belief is more important than reality. The German Greens and SPD cannot change this, because it defines who they are.

Of course, energy politics has changed radically since then, but both the Greens and the SPD are clinically unable to even think about re-thinking their position: the preference is to grasp at straws, to deny reality in order to avoid having to face it.

Hence the obsessive belief that renewables can provide adequate energy. Ignoring that nuclear energy generates virtually no carbon dioxide, the push is instead for renewable energy sources that, however, require significant carbon dioxide usage in manufacturing. To give you an idea of how severe this phobia is, consider this: Germany has, over the last eight years, spent 22 bn Euros on supporting photovoltaic energy source development. The German potential for using photovoltaic energy? Extremely small, but hey, it's only taxpayer money. But it gets worse: German electricity costs are amongst the highest in the world, partially because the government requires public utilities to buy electricity from renewable energy sources at a severely inflated price.

Baring's point here is that this ideological dogma has led to a dead-end street for German energy policy. You can have a wonderful career as a politician in Germany if you bedevil nuclear energy and the capitalism that purportedly requires it, but that doesn't help you have an energy policy that actually works.

It's denial of reality.

The current German policy is that nuclear power Will Be Turned Off. There is no questioning of where electricity for consumers is to come from, whether it's sensible to build coal-powered plants to replace nuclear plants taken off-line (not a good balance if you want to reduce carbon dioxide, people), how does Germany reduce its dependence on foreign energy suppliers who are not terribly nice folks, and indeed are fairly unstable energy suppliers.

Now, Germany has also set high standards for carbon dioxide reduction. How these are to be achieved isn't of interest: the important thing is that it's been decided.

An energy policy that carries ideological blinders is not a policy at all: it is a statement of belief. Beliefs are not reality. Anyone - anyone - who ignores reality is doomed to make mistakes that will be, in the real world, disastrous.

So what does this have to do with America turning German?

Denial of reality.

Refusal by the Democrats to see how their ideological beliefs - that they can manipulate markets for political gain - have caused catastrophe.

Denial of reality.

Is America turning German? In terms of German pathology, it looks like it.

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