top of page

From Global Pariah to Green Giant: Does Germany Hold a Key to Our Sustainable Future?

If you aren’t scared by climate chaos predictions, you aren’t paying attention. Last month Bill McKibben told us that if we use up fossil fuel reserves we’ll overshoot five times over what a livable Earth can withstand. This month climate scientist James Hansen tells us the “grim picture” he painted 25 years ago “was too optimistic.”

So, the task of multiplying what is working to keep fossil energy in the ground seems more urgent than ever.

And what is working? Within my lifetime — i.e. since the 1940s — the German state, an international pariah silencing citizens and perpetrating mass murder, has become an international hero, showing a path to freedom from fossil fuels that relies on widespread citizen participation.

In the early 1990s, Germany had virtually no renewable energy, so I was astonished to learn that in 2010 Germany — slightly smaller in area than Montana and hardly a Sunbelt — generated almost half the world’s solar energy.

How could this happen? In part the answer is Germany’s innovative public policy called the Feed-in Tariff. It rewards households for becoming renewable energy producers by obligating utilities to buy electricity from installations like a solar panel or small windmill at a price guaranteeing a good return. And the approach is going global.

Germany’s rapid expansion of renewable energy reflects not only its state policy but also citizens mobilizing on a large scale. Consider the vision and courage of one Ursula Sladek.

In the Black Forest community of Schönau, Ursula, mother of five, was deeply shaken by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident. But instead of just fighting nuclear power, she chose to create an alternative. By 1997, she and neighbors had raised the millions of euros needed to buy out the area’s private power grid and turn it into a clean-energy co-op. Now with over 1,000 owners, the co-op uses and supports decentralized renewable power like solar and wind for 120,000 customers, including households and factories. It’s shooting for a million customers in three years.

And as of 2011, all of Germany got on board with Ursula, as it joined about a dozen countries that oppose nuclear power.

Something is working in Germany. But why is it working? For me, Germany demonstrates that sane steps to carbon freedom are possible where democracy functions — where private industry is not in control of public policy.

Consider this: In a recent global study of the effectiveness of laws governing money’s role in politics, on a scale of 100 Germany scored highest at 83.

And the U.S.? We tied Tajikistan for the sad score of 29.

Several key elements of the German system reduce the power of concentrated wealth:

Since 1958, political parties have received government funding. Private donations are encouraged as well, in part by tax breaks: Individuals may deduct from taxable income half their donations below €3,000 (twice that for joint returns). Or they may claim a tax credit of €825 (€1,650 for joint returns).

Private and corporate contributions are not limited but transparency laws are strict: Contributions of more than 10,000 euro per year must be disclosed.

Moreover, in Germany, corporations and large private donors (who, if like the U.S., would typically represent corporate interests), don’t wield the power over media messages they do here. As in most of Western Europe, Germany prohibits paid political advertising. Citizens learn about issues mainly from media interviews and discussions with politicians because “broadcasters have the mandate to inform the public on political matters...,” notes a Library of Congress, Law Library summary.

Over six decades, Germany’s political rules have evolved to reduce three conditions — concentrated power, secrecy, scapegoating — proven to bring out our species’ worst, whether throughout our long history or in lab experiments where we’ve been the guinea pigs. Rules like those above help to enhance their opposites: dispersion of power, transparency and mutual accountability. Of course, no system is perfect, and democracy has no endpoint anyway. But in this example, and so many others, we have glimpses of what works to create democracy that includes citizen voices.

Bringing the lesson home, we realize that we can and we must place every urgent call to block fossil fuel exploitation and to reward renewable development within the frame of democracy itself.

We can rally each other to credible steps to create real, accountable democracy now — steps that can succeed in the foreseeable future. Since we can’t wait for a Supreme Court majority that grasps that democracy depends on politics freed from corporate dominance, we must move now for legislation enabling public and/or citizen-financed campaigns so that candidates don’t have to use any corporate money. The approach has worked for three state legislatures. At the same time, we can vote for those supporting measures that mandate disclosure of the sources of money in political contests:DISCLOSE Act and the Shareholder Protection Act.

Among proposals to enable candidates to run for office un-beholden to corporate funders, I am working to figure out where to put my energies. If you want to know where I land, please e-mail us at with “money in politics” as the subject line.

For me, Germany is a powerful reminder of how rapidly positive change can happen. Its dramatic transformation during my lifetime tells me that that solutions, whether to genocide or ecocide, require democracy.

bottom of page