Embracing the Wind Denmark's Recipe for a Model Democracy
Part 2: 'A Miracle of Modern Politics'
But there's also a fundamental dimension to Denmark's energy transition: How is it possible to whisk such an initiative through parliament, the courts and company boardrooms in a way that makes the population see its advantages rather than growing weary of it? How do you plant a major technological innovation in people's minds, and how do you distribute it to the electrical outlets of an entire country?
It's the challenge of an entire generation and a race against time: Whoever first manages to tame the wind is guaranteed prosperity and power. "Why do you think the Chinese president recently visited Denmark?" Stiesdal asks.
Indeed, even without its wind-power success story, political scientists have long viewed Denmark as a model state. Perhaps the most striking expression of this was coined by Francis Fukuyama in his most recent work "The Origins of Political Order," when he talked about the idea of "getting to Denmark." For the Stanford professor, who became world-famous with his 1992 proclamation of the "end of history," the Scandinavian country is "a mythical place" known for its outstanding political and economic institutions. "It is stable, democratic, peaceful, prosperous, inclusive and has extremely low levels of political corruption," he writes.
Fukuyama presents Denmark as a "miracle of modern politics," as a point of orientation for all failed and faltering states in this world. Likewise, he postulates a kind of tripartite recipe for successful governance. This requires an effective administration, a transparent justice system and a government that is accountable to its citizens at all times.
Of course there is always something or other rotten in the state of Denmark, making this famous line from Shakespeare's "Hamlet" an oft-cited metaphor in political commentaries on this nation of 5.6 million people. And, of course, even Denmark cannot isolate itself from the forces that undermine parliamentary democracies elsewhere. But, in international rankings, the Danes regularly take top positions not only in terms of quality of life, competitiveness, combating corruption and the satisfaction of its citizens, but also with regard to the quality of its politicians.
Germany's Bertelsmann Stiftung, for instance, recently came to the following conclusion in its latest comparison of sustainable politics in over 100 countries: "The general level of public trust in government and public administration is high." When it came to political management ("very convincing"), it rated Denmark in third place, eight places ahead of Germany and 22 ahead of France. It said that governmental action in Copenhagen is extraordinarily "credible and transparent."
A Winning Mindset
Wind power provides an ideal example of what this triad of productive administration, effective justice and accountable politicians can accomplish in Denmark.
Right at the entrance to Copenhagen's harbor stands the first, widely visible symbol of the success of Denmark's wind democracy. Only just over 3 kilometers (2 miles) from the shoreline, directly in front of the local beach used by the capital city's residents, stand 20 wind turbines in a crescent formation, like pearls on a necklace in the strait that separates Denmark and Sweden. "Aside from a few old women, it doesn't bother anyone," says Erik Christiansen, 56, who heads the cooperative association that operates the wind farm.
Before the wind turbines -- each over 100 meters high and generating two megawatts of power -- were connected to the electrical grid in early 2001, only four objections were lodged against this major project. By German standards, this would be unthinkable. One resident complained at the time that the rotors stood so close to the shoreline that she would have to see the turbines every day. "Of course, that's also the idea," was the simple response. "We wanted to make alternative energy visible," Christiansen says.
He has been running the cooperative with a staff of seven since it was founded in 1997. Today, 8,642 members own 50 percent of the shares, while the remainder is held by the public utility giant Dong.
Christiansen is a mild-mannered legal expert who has a green and eco-friendly mind-set, but he isn't a zealous crusader. Indeed, this man -- with his nondescript mustache and square wire-rim glasses -- embodies a character trait that many political scientists say is responsible for the success of Danish consensual politics: "Ideological immunity," is the term used by Berlin-based Scandinavia expert Bernd Henningsen in his analysis of Germany's northern neighbors.
Instead of revolutionary upheaval, continuity has always been seen as a guarantee of success in Denmark. The great Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard recommended that political thinking and action must be based on a tangible reality.
In terms of wind power, the tangible reality is the desire to never again be forced into a dependency on fossil fuels.
A 'People's Movement'
For a long time, the wind park just outside Copenhagen was the largest in the world. Christiansen and his colleagues have rehearsed how to gain acceptance for such a major project -- and how to raise money. The association had to accumulate some 180 million kroner -- the equivalent of 24 million -- to realize the project. It took them only one year to amass the funds, and the shareholders' optimism appeared boundless. There were no laws or guidelines to serve as a basis for the construction. Instead, rules and parameters were tested and established as the work progressed.
Although the turbines are spinning at a prime location, only a handful of objections were raised. A few fishermen protested, but they're not allowed to drop their nets there anyway due to water-pollution regulations. A few sailors complained about the feared operational noise of the propellers, whose sound would carry over the water for kilometers. And concerned nature lovers warned that thousands of birds would die.
These are all common objections in other countries. But, in Denmark, wind power has become a "people's movement," Stiesdal says.
Despite all the prejudices of the Protestant rural population, the tinkerers and inventors -- including many hippies and nonconformists -- were able to convince the farmers and small-town residents to make their fields available and give them money. "You don't fight against something that benefits you personally," Stiesdal says.
As an executive, Stiesdal knows that big-city dentists are the ones bankrolling wind turbines in other countries. But that isn't the case in Denmark. The original proponents of wind power may no longer be able to raise the large amounts of capital required, and the large wind farms receive their money from international investment funds, but local communities are also investing. They contribute 20 percent of the investments made, as prescribed by law. Offshore wind farms, such as Denmark's largest off the island of Anholt in waterway between Denmark and Sweden, receive their money from retirement funds. "It's a great feeling to see the turbines spinning and know that they're securing my pension," Stiesdal says.