What’s the main reason that people turn to anti-establishment politics? It might be due to a loss of contact and feelings of isolation. Community energy projects encourage people to take pride in their towns and make government work for them, says Craig Morris.
Martin Patzelt, a conservative Christian Democrat politician in Germany, defeated a top AfD politician in the September elections. The AfD, Alternative für Deutschland, is Germany’s new anti-establishment party. It represents everyone who wants to break government, not tweak it to make it work better.
Patzelt drew attention to himself by cycling across his district to meet voters in person. The region is depressed; locals feel like decision-makers never think of them. But Patzelt discovered something else: one reason for anti-establishment sentiment is “the loss of direct contact” (in German). People not only think politicians have lost touch with normal people, but that they themselves are losing touch with each other.
Loneliness is a thus driver of anti-establishment resentment. Strengthening communities and neighborhood networks (not social networks online) reduces loneliness.
Community renewable projects do just that. Germany now has some 1,000 citizen cooperatives for renewables. The country’s energy transition is often discussed in terms of carbon emissions and cost but less often in terms of its impact on democracy.
In the Bavarian village of Larrieden, citizens decided to develop a biogas unit, two district heat networks, and a giant modern wind turbine along with several solar roofs. The decision was made shortly after the last bakery and bar had closed. The villagers no longer simply bumped into each other.
So a small group founded a community renewables initiative. Suddenly, everyone had a reason to get together regularly, share ideas, talk about costs, and figure out laws and permitting procedures. And get to know each other. “Saving the planet was not the main objective. Saving the community was,” explains Stefan Bayerlein, a local who now manages the project. Germany has a long tradition of such cooperatives, and citizens have been a major player in renewables for three decades.
Across western democracies, anti-establishment sentiment is growing. President Trump received some 46% of the popular vote, and 52% of the British voted for Brexit. Likewise, Le Pen got 34% of the vote in France this year. But anti-establishment sentiment is relatively weak in Germany; the AfD “only” got 13% of the vote nationwide in September. Likewise, only 13% of the vote went to Gerd Wilders in the Netherlands. Both of these countries have strong citizen-driven cooperative movements that allow citizens to feel like they can become successfully involved in their political system. They haven’t stopped believing that government can work for them.
The Dutch have a long history of working together locally to protect their land from the water. “Polders” were built: land parcels surrounded by dykes. This cooperative spirit is what the Dutch call their “polder mentality” – their community can-do spirit. In 2017, it led to a gigantic citizen-owned wind farm: 93 turbines worth 400 million euros. “The government basically insisted that farmers get together and agree on what the rules for land used as wind farms should be,” says Siward Zomer, who heads the new citizen wind farm that resulted. “Up to then, different people had negotiated different terms, and the general feeling was that the result was unfair.” So the Dutch came together to discuss – for four years – what would be fair.
In the US, France, and the UK, citizen-driven renewable energy projects are less common. Suburbia in North America looks a lot like struggling rural German villages like Larrieden: quiet homes with no social life on the street, little infrastructure in walking distance, and little occasion to casually bump into your neighbors. “We increasingly just waved to each other while driving by to go shopping,” Bayerlein describes a situation that many American will be familiar with. Small town America and rural Europe both need ways to compensate for the increasing isolation people experience.
Of course, community renewables is not a silver bullet against anti-establishment feelings. The option of building your own wind turbine does little good if you have no spare change.
Furthermore, it is hard to measure the positive impact of citizen renewables against all other factors. The closing of a school or regional train station probably leads to more resentment than any citizen solar roof could repair. So the benefits of community renewables should not be overstated.
On the other hand, citizens need ways to participate productively in government and experience that can be made to work for them. Community renewable energy projects bring people together. It’s not about agreeing on everything, but about finding ways to overcome differences amicably. At the very least, community renewables is a step in the right direction towards making people feel that they can make their government work. And you get to bump into your neighbors again.