Turning the Tide: How the Common Will Inspires Unlikely Victories over Special Interest Groups

Saturday, March 16th, 2013 | Uncategorized

photoSomething interesting is happening in Central Europe. I just returned from Berlin where i attended a global gathering on Banking for a Better World. The meeting was sponsored by the Global Alliance for Banking on Values, which comprises 22 banks operating with social and ecological responsible banking principles in everything they do. It’s a small group of innovative banks, including GLS, Triodos, and BRAC Banks. Their combined total assets are minuscule in comparison with those of the “too big to fail” Wall Street banks. But then, all profound innovations start very small…

Why do socially responsible banks matter? Because we need to fund the movement that all of us care so deeply about. We need to redirect speculation-driven money back into the heart of the real economy, back into the sources of social, ecological, and cultural renewal.

One of these strategic areas of investment is what in Germany is called the Energiewende—the currently ongoing transformation of the energy system from fossil and nuclear to renewable sources of energy. It’s the biggest infrastructure project in Germany since World War II, moving the country into what Jeremy Rifkin has termed the third industrial revolution.

How did that happen? How is it possible that in a world in which governments tend to be firmly in the grip of special interest groups (example: Washington, where health, energy, and financial reforms have not touched any of the powerful vested interests to date) that the tide is turning from organized irresponsibility (that is, our current 1.5 planet footprint) to pioneering the way toward a more sustainable economy?

What explains such a medium-sized miracle in Germany?

Briefly: It began in the late 1970s and early ’80s with a massive 30-plus-year-old grassroots movement that staged a series of enormous demonstrations against nuclear power construction sites all over Germany and elsewhere in Europe. The movement discussed all of the ideas and concepts (including the concept of Energiewende) that 33 years later a conservative German government adopted as government policy. It began by bringing the ideas raised by the grassroots activists into civil society conversations. It also created a vehicle for launching those ideas into the world of politics: the Green Party. The German Green Party was founded in 1980 and first elected to the national parliament in 1983. From 1998 to 2005 it was a coalition partner in the German government. During that period, the ideas of the Energiewende moved into the mainstream of politics and policymaking.

But in 2010/11, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, influenced by the powerful energy industry, decided to undo the phasing out of nuclear power that the earlier Red-Green German government had set in motion. Then, in 2011, the disaster at Fukushima happened, and the political landscape shifted again. The experience of the nuclear meltdown combined with the strong grassroots reaction in Germany (where the majority of the population supports the exit from nuclear energy) prompted Chancellor Merkel to put the Energiewende back into action—despite strong objections from the traditional energy sector. Today, most Germans still support the Energiewende although it has resulted in higher energy prices for them.

So what’s the pattern here? A well-established grassroots movement that starts with ideas and civic circles, moves to spontaneous actions and grassroots mobilizing, and results in political decision-making and large-scale refocusing of entrepreneurial action. As a consequence, we see an emerging movement of civic, people-owned energy co-operatives that are trying to take over from the big public utilities (which for many are a synonym of party politics and corruption) and big energy companies (whose reputations are not much better). The shift from fossil and nuclear to renewable sources of energy is also fueling a shift toward more distributed, more local forms of shared ownership. In Germany alone there now exist 500 locally owned co-operatives focusing on renewable, local energy production.

Where have we seen a similar pattern recently, where a grassroots-based common will wins out over the multi-million-dollar campaign of the vested interests? Switzerland. On March 3 the Swiss people decided to force public companies to give shareholders a binding vote on executive compensation, effectively ending a period of obscene bonus payments that business executives gave to each other without effective shareholder oversight. In spite of a massive public campaign by the entire political and business establishment of the country, 68% of voters approved the proposal, one of the largest majorities in a referendum ever.

Another example from Germany is the Bavarian citizen initiated referendum in 2010 of a total ban on smoking in all public places, in spite of a massive campaign by the tobacco industry.

So what can we learn about how these grassroots movements express, facilitate, and embody a common will that prevails, against all odds and against the massive firepower of organized special interest groups, in order to make their communities better places? One thing we learn is that elements of direct democracy, like the use of a referendum, can (if linked with quality spaces for public conversation) be a very effective vehicle to weaken the dependency of politicians from special interest groups and to move a country forward.

Where else have you seen examples of this kind of action? And what key learning can we take from their stories?

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5 Comments to Turning the Tide: How the Common Will Inspires Unlikely Victories over Special Interest Groups

Aad Berkhout
March 17, 2013

What you see in general is the growing power of NGO’s as a counterbalance to the traditional lobbyist powers being backed by big corperations. In addition of the NGO’s whom have been around allready for sone time you see the growing influence if social media (both positive and negative) where the public opinion is expressed and government bodies seems to be more suseptive to in a shifting political landscape where the traditional “old” right and left wing parties seem to have lost the vote of the young generation.

christoph
March 18, 2013

look at whats going on in iceland:
http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/politiklabor-island-eine-verfassung-wie-wikipedia-1.1626022
as I read this article now, I was reminded of your blog post that I read yesterday… but imagine such initiatives could be scaled up, and we as citizens could agree on how we want to live together.

Joanne
March 19, 2013

Thanks for this encouraging post from your time at the Berline meetings. It shows that grassroots participation and organizing can make a differnce. It is also encouraging to see the works of socially responsible banks.

Evelin Tamm
March 26, 2013

I have been working on social change being one of these grass roots activists but at the same time I am also doing research on several areas connected to learning, sustainability and future education. In my opinion every honest intellectual is also an activist.

I agree that people have more than ever before a chance now to work together. Thanks to the networks that are much easier to establish and collective awareness that it is us who need to act in order for democracy to live. At the same time there is a growing awareness also from the special interest groups to challenge this new wave of social movement and social activism. Besides participatory leadership practices the growing interest in PR and social media tools to manipulate the masses are coming forward. We see the decline in educational developments. Schools are like mechanical monsters from 100 years ago not meant for the children of the future.

I see that the field is filled with multiple actions in both directions. What is new perhaps is the collective intelligence (global wisdom) that is within reach of most people in the Globe who has a computer. Many people are consciously working in order to develop open access materials and share our experiences around the globe.

It is easy for me personally to be connected to activists in all Europe or in many continents. Ask for assistance or advice. See with my own eyes what is happening in different regions. Be inspired by the others, learn from their work and share mine. I think that activist have never felt so united than now.

The first moment when I stood with my poster nearly alone demanding attention to education and teachers situation… even then I did not feel alone, because many people were joining in this cause via web.

What is more important now is to learn how to maintain the momentum. How to grow and change the practice of politics. Even in this direction I see changes happening but it is not easy. It is especially difficult in the welfare states where people are so dependent on the money. Everything is measurable in gold and the community connections are so very weak.

I wish more “ordinary” people from all places of the world would join their forces to figure out how to maintain our humanity and live in peace. Until now I experience as it is something what is happening far from an ordinary man but it influences our lives every day.

Gastón
April 21, 2013

Dear Dr. Scharmer, his literary work “Theory U” is available in spanish. Greetings from Ecuador.

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