For those of us who call for greater energy democracy, Brexit is a challenge. After all, doesn’t it demonstrate that the public is easy to fool and cannot be trusted to make decisions based on facts rather than emotions? To draw the right conclusions for all of Europe, it helps to understand how the Energiewende strengthened democracy in Germany. Craig Morris calls for more democracy, not less.
The Brexit issue divided the British public into two groups. First, the young wanted to stay in, while the elderly wanted out. Second, those who felt left behind wanted out. This latter category (not the former) is what nationalist movements across Europe have in common.
Critics of the Leave camp are now charging that voters did not understand what they were voting on. “We now live in a post-factual democracy,” one upset British journalist wrote from Italy. Is it really that simple? Young students and Canary Wharf bankers benefit from the EU; but a low-income, middle-aged worker with kids in small-town England wants security, not mobility.
The public is dissatisfied about a wide range of topics. Occasionally, they are asked what they think, such as at public hearings on wind farms or grid lines – or a simple yes/no vote on EU membership. People need to be able to chime in more often (not necessarily in referenda). The Remain camp’s frustration is understandable, but calling the public stupid is how we got into this, not how we get out – 52 percent of the British public are not “cranks and hooligans.” “These idiots didn’t know what they were doing!” – how likely is it that this arrogance will sway the Leave camp to the other side? Why not admit that Europe is leaving behind too many of its citizens? If these folks feel disenfranchised, enfranchise them – make everyone feel they have too much to lose if they question the very heart of the system.
To quote former German Foreign Minister to US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in a democracy you have to make the case.
Fortunately, some (former) top EU bureaucrats now realize they failed to make the case. Folks, if you want an EU for citizens, it’s time to start knocking on doors and honing that sales pitch. Put the arrogance away and get the arguments out.
Yes, the public doesn’t know much – what else is new? The “last person to know everything” is a meme, but the most recent one on this list was born in the 19th century. The world has long been too complex for any one person to grasp. Everyone’s stupid about something (if you’re so smart, fix that toaster).
Yes, there are some crazy ideas out there. We repeatedly get questions from our audiences about “free energy” (no, not that, this). But in a democracy, you don’t need 100 percent support – 60 percent is pretty awesome. Even then, democracy should not be “winner take all.” The interests of minorities must be respected. We should reject the notion that experts can tell the public what is right (that’s technocracy, not democracy). Properly understood, democracy does not give majorities what they want but offers, ideally, a platform where conflicting interests can reach compromises equally disappointing to all sides.
The Energiewende shows that the public is sometimes right – and experts sometimes wrong. Not all issues are black and white either. To take one example, Germany could phase out coal and use natural gas as a backup for fluctuating wind and solar; carbon emissions would go down, and gas turbines are more flexible. It sounds perfect – except Germany has coal, not gas, so domestic jobs would be lost, and the biggest gas supplier to Germany is Russia. Experts from different fields – electricity, political science, climate, and more – need to make their case. Society decides.
Increasingly, such a trans-disciplinary approach is needed. Want to “spike” the atmosphere so that more sunlight reflects back into space, thereby preventing climate change? Okay, but who will pay PV investors for their losses? Geo-engineers need social scientists to discuss side effects in public.
As US founding father Thomas Jefferson knew, democracy requires an educated citizenry. So let’s start making the case. Environmental protection, the energy transition, and climate change mitigation require public support. Otherwise, we have the dreaded “eco-dictatorship” – and whoever doesn’t participate is stupid.
The recent discussions about so-called “free trade” agreements, TTIP and CETA, have largely left out the public. Apparently, Brussels has learned the wrong lesson from Brexit; it aimed to continue to shut out public review but has now conceded under pressure. We can do better than that. Brexit is an opportunity to fight for the EU we want – one for its citizens, not for its technocrats and corporations.
Craig Morris (@PPchef) co-authored the forthcoming history of the Energiewende entitled Energy Democracy. Morris is the lead author of German Energy Transition. He directs Petite Planète and writes every workday for Renewables International.