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What The US Can Learn From Germany’s Stunning Environmental Movement

Above: A German wind turbine. (Flickr/epSos .de)

A key to Germany’s success is a persistent and uncompromising environmental movement that has used civil resistance and protest ad well as independent electoral politics to achieve its goals.

While the United States’ congressional machinery was busy shoveling sugar into its own gas tank last month, politicians in Germany pressed forward on their ambitious drive for sustainability. Boosted by a fresh mandate in the September elections, German leaders pressed on with their country’s “Energy Transformation,” a campaign designed to ignite a renewables revolution and slash greenhouse gases 80 percent by 2050. As Germany begins powering down its coal plants and nuclear reactors one by one, solar stations and windmills are appearing around the country by the tens of thousands.

U.S. climate activists have been quick to valorize Germany’s recent restructuring. Bill McKibben of has called Germany the greenest industrial nation on earth. “Munich is north of Montreal!” he likes to point out, emphasizing that the cold and cloudy capital of kraut is already capable of generating half of its electricity from solar power — and that the rest of the world’s sunnier, windier and more seismically active countries no longer have an excuse not to follow suit.

There is good reason for painting Germany as the poster child of the possible. As McKibben has noted, a north European ski paradise isn’t the likeliest of places to be spearheading a global energy revolution. In 1945, just two generations ago, Germany was more or less a country of rubble, its population decimated by a genocidal war and its territory controlled by four increasingly discordant occupying forces. As recently as 1990, it remained bifurcated by the Iron Curtain, a quarter of its population residing in a Soviet police state with a dismal environmental record.

Mainstream U.S. commentators regularly chalk up German environmental efficiency to some innate orderliness in the eternal German spirit. But make no mistake: The secret to Germany’s sustainability success has been the relentless and unapologetic application of populist direct action. From 1975, when 30,000 Germans caught the world’s attention by storming and occupying a proposed nuclear plant for 10 months, to just this past October, when clean energy activists dumped coal outside the workspaces of environmentally friendly politicians who had not gone far enough, confrontation has pumped the heart of progress.

The roots of German environmentalism reach back well into the 19th century, when notions of sustainability and conservation fueled dreams of nationalist expansion and military readiness, including under Hitler’s Nazi regime. Postwar environmentalism, however, has proved a tool of liberation. The legions of students, grandmothers, social reformers and full-time activists that formed the emerging movement in the 1950s and 1960s aligned their collective agenda with values like decentralization, anti-fascism, social equality and multiculturalism.

By the mid-1970s, environmentalism had come into its own as West Germany’s opposition movement par excellence. Crafted in bold anti-establishment terms, it stood as a forceful challenge to the bureaucratic impersonality and unrestricted capitalism of Western technocratic modernity. Employing a broad range of tactics, activists painted a new picture of Germany’s future. Where their fellow citizens saw chain-smoking factories and drunken waterways, they imagined hilltop wind farms and rooftop solar panels. Rather than of a graveyard of Chernobyls, they proposed a post-nuclear nation — a land whose fish would be edible and where acid rain would be the stuff of legend.

With the formation of the national Green Party in 1980, environmentalists made their first foray into federal politics, becoming powerful enough to enter a ruling coalition as early as 1998. Even in the ecological wreck of Soviet East Germany, environmentalism became a surprisingly active sphere of political participation, with over 100 such groups operating in the German Democratic Republic by the time of its reunification with the West in 1990.

The truly impressive achievement of Germany’s green agenda has been its ability to set the baseline for national discourse. Today, an overwhelming majority of Germans support the creation of an economy run on 100 percent renewable energy, with 84 percent believing this goal should be achieved “as quickly as possible.” Given a choice between driving to work and taking the bus, Germans will usually ride their bikes. Even relatively low-income college students support high fees for long distance travel (“Incentives to slim your carbon footprint!”), and shoppers don’t think twice about shelling out a few extra euros for a cart full of organic goods packed in reusable sacks. At the parliamentary level, Germany’s two largest parties feature “Energy Transformation” as a centerpiece of their platforms.

Multi-partisan support has yielded hefty legislation. Strict eco-taxes keep fossil fuel prices high, while sustainability subsidies generate innovative and affordable renewables. A generous “feed in tariff” allows households to produce and sell energy back to the grid while remaining competitive against traditional power providers, a policy — designed to promote a decentralized and democratic economy — that has allowed up to 50 percent of renewables to remain in individual hands. Already by 2005, national greenhouse gas emissions declined 18 percent against 1990 levels. And Germans are projected to overshoot their goals for 2020.

The green hue emanating from the Reichstag these days may give the impression that Germany’s clean tech triumph is being driven by top-down legislative politics. Certainly, federal laws provide the incentive and enforcement mechanisms so vital to the cause. But as remarkable as these policies may be, they are primarily the product of an ongoing people’s campaign. As has so often been true of positive social reform, Germany’s politicians are the followers, not the leaders.

Perhaps the clearest example has been Germany’s recent decision to give up nuclear power entirely. When the 2011 radioactive meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, drew global attention to the risks of atomic energy, German politicians announced anunprecedented about-face on their previously robust nuclear program. Within two months of the Fukushima disaster, Germany had deactivated eight of its 17 nuclear plants and vowed to phase out the remaining nine by 2022. While most analysts interpreted the decision as a short-term ploy to curry domestic votes, in fact it signaled the successful culmination of a multi-decade grassroots struggle.

Anti-nuclear protests, a staple of German environmentalism since the 1970s, had beenheating up in the years preceding Fukushima. In early 2010, a full year before the tragedy, 120,000 Germans had formed a 75-mile human chain between two active nuclear plants. The day after the tsunami hit, tens of thousands formed a similar chain across parts of southern Germany. Within three days of the meltdown, some 110,000 demonstrators had staged nearly 500 events in as many towns across the country. By the end of the month, massive rallies had engulfed Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne and Munich. National uproar continued as March led to April, and it was only in late May, after 25,000 protesters had converged on their party headquarters, that Chancellor Merkel and her government agreed to a ban.

Admittedly, Germany’s “Energy Transformation” program hasn’t been all windmills and sunflowers. Germans disagree over the operational details of their green transition. Rising energy prices have prompted questions about governmental controls, coalition talks have splintered on how to prevent further price hikes, and the absorption of the environmentalist platform into the political mainstream appears to have mortally wounded the Green Party. But unlike in the United States — where politicians can barely fit environmental issues into their talking points — these difficulties are symptoms of success.

The message for the United States couldn’t be clearer. Sustained popular support for environmental legislation can wield dramatic political power — and major change is sure to follow. As Germany has demonstrated, even the most modern of nations can adopt the kind of sweeping, no-holds-barred legislation our world needs if we are to escape climate calamity. Germany may not have all the answers, but as it blazes a path away from fossil fuels and nuclear power, there will certainly be much for the United States to listen to. And we won’t even have to tap Angela Merkel’s cellphone.

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