Almost instantaneously the catastrophe that devastated Japan was transformed into an immediate existential threat to the German way of life. Now and again it was possible to hear expressions of sympathy for the Japanese victims of the earthquake, but such manifestations of compassion swiftly gave way to a narrow-minded focus on domestic security.
The self-regarding obsession that incites people’s passion towards asking the question “what does it mean for me?” is one of the least attractive features of the culture of fear that dominates Europe. That is why, instead of offering solidarity, German protesters were demanding that action be taken to ensure the safety of their back yard.
By the time of the massive demonstration against nuclear power on March 26, Fukushima was more or less reinvented as a cautionary tale for fanning the anxiety of German folk. The demonstrators did remember to hold a minute’s silence for the victims of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, but what really animated the protesters was something very different. In such circumstances human solidarity becomes emptied of meaning and the concern is all about survival, and, in the case of politicians, about political survival.
As a politician well-known for her pragmatism, German Chancellor Angela Merkel decided to embrace the newly constructed disaster myth of Fukushima.
She promptly announced an official review of energy policy and ordered the immediate shutting down of Germany’s oldest nuclear reactors. The haste with which she took these decisions had all the hallmarks of a desperate attempt to stay in touch with public sentiment. This response was all the more remarkable because only a few months earlier she stated that these old reactors could continue to produce nuclear power past their original shutdown dates.
The official announcement this week that Germany will phase out its nuclear power plants by 2022 shows how government policy is made on the hoof, with an eye to the latest swing in the opinion polls.
Merkel’s change of position is frequently ascribed to the electoral setbacks suffered by her Christian Democratic Party in recent local elections. In particular, the CDU’s loss of the key state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, where Fukushima was a key issue, is seen as responsible for Merkel’s loss of nerve over the nuclear issue.
For the CDU, which had run this state since 1953, the election setback exposes its inability to set a distinct political agenda.
The doubling of the Green vote in this traditional conservative state indicates that old political loyalties are now tested by a disoriented electorate, who are constantly subjected to scaremongering and incited to fear.
Many European anti-nuclear power activists believe the German government’s decision to phase out this source of energy represents payback for Fukushima. Although the crisis at the Japanese power plant did have a direct influence on the public imagination, aversion to nuclear technology has strong historic roots in Germany.
Since the 1970s, protests against nuclear power have enjoyed considerable support from a heterogeneous coalition of students, youth-activist movements, trade unions, far-left and communist organisations and rural conservative lobbies.
Anti-nuclear power sentiment has become normalised to the point that it is difficult to encounter any German who does not subscribe to the popular slogan Atomkraft? Nein danke! (Nuclear power? No thanks!)
It is important to recall that the powerful modern German environment movement grew out of the 70s anti-nuclear protests.
Unlike any other cause upheld by radical protesters, hostility to nuclear power resonated with the mainstream of German society. Public opinion regarded nuclear power and the NATO nuclear missiles sited on its soil as merely different forms of the same threat.
By the end of the 70s the term nuclear had become the focus for German existential insecurity. Hostility to nuclear technology resonated with the traditional German idealisation of nature and its romantic cultural imagination. The historic valuation of nature as something that is morally good in its own terms drew a significant section of the conservative intelligentsia and political class towards an anti-nuclear standpoint.
At the same time the German Left, particularly its more radical section, regarded this issue as an opportunity to overcome its own isolation and gain public influence. One reason the German Green Party has succeeded in gaining so much prominence is because from the outset it succeeded in bringing together a coalition of otherwise hostile constituents.
In Germany the significance of the Greens should not be seen merely in electoral terms.
During the past two decades their ideas have dominated public life. Their influence in education, the media and cultural life is palpable. Public relations companies rely on green messages to sell their products and companies insist that the environment is their principal concern.
The CDU, similar to its Social Democrat and Liberal counterparts, has internalised the core values of environmentalism: the sacralisation of anything natural, aversion to risk and the celebration of precaution and of safety.
These values validate the fear-mongering that has erupted in the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake.
Merkel has always played the green card. Last year she argued for maintaining nuclear power stations to realise a cleaner and greener future. Her argument was that this technology would help save the planet because nuclear plants did not emit any CO2.
Merkel took the view that the fear of global warming would trump anxieties about nuclear power.
For a while, at least, it appeared that a risk-averse environmentalist consensus obsessed with climate change would come around and accept this argument. However, our culture of fear is still surprisingly pragmatic. It tends to privilege nuclear phobia over apocalyptic visions of planetary destruction in the distant future.
The main beneficiary of German nuclear hysteria could be France, whose growing nuclear power industry may well be exporting energy to its very green neighbours. And the Germans will be unlikely to say, “Nein danke.”
This article was published in The Australian.