The globalisation of German angst

Never mind the people in Japan — for fearful Germans, every natural disaster is now ‘all about us’.

Matthias Heitmann

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As Japan struggles with damaged nuclear reactors, the German government has announced that some nuclear power plants in Germany will be taken offline. In her policy speech last week, Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated that the German nuclear power plants were among the world’s safest. However, events in Japan had created a ‘new situation’ in which the ‘seemingly impossible’ had become possible. It was now necessary, Merkel said, to suspend for three months a previously announced policy to extend the life of some of these power stations.

With this ‘exit with a sense of proportion’, Merkel finally destroyed the credibility of her government’s energy policy. Ironically, the policy of extending the life of the nuclear plants had been justified on the grounds that it would meet the energy security needs of Germany’s citizens. Now, security is being used to justify a change of approach. Some have reacted to the signals from the top with fear; Geiger counter sales are on the rise, for example. Meanwhile, stories circulate in the media that Germany’s power stations are more at risk from earthquakes than the government has been prepared to admit.

What’s caused this panic? One possibility is to blame globalisation. The countries of the world are so closely linked, it is argued, that problems are almost impossible to solve at the national level. At least as far as the German perception of crises and disasters goes, the earth does indeed appear to have shrunk to the size of a village. How else could an earthquake in Japan threaten Germany’s power stations?

But blaming globalisation would be a mistake. Such ‘global thinking’ is based on fears and emotions that have little to do with concrete knowledge about, or increased interest in, the actual situation in crisis-hit Japan; nor does this outlook have much regard for the fate of the local people, either. Rather, events in Japan have been used to reinforce some longstanding political positions in Germany, providing a new boost of energy for the anti-nuclear movement.

As a result, even the most unlikely disaster is considered as a useful indicator of impending doom, showing how important it is to take every possible precaution while casting doubt on humanity’s ability to predict and deal with danger. Suddenly, real differences that exist in the world are being erased. In no time, the Upper Rhine Graben is transformed into the next potential earthquake disaster area.

The speed with which the disaster in Japan was turned into a German domestic political debate only shows how little interest there was in the actual fate of the people affected. The wallowing in horror scenarios in Germany has been so widespread that even leading representatives of the ruling CDU / FDP government, which had reversed the decision to close the nuclear power stations made by the previous red-green government, abandoned these plans within a few days of the earthquake. All the government’s arguments about the importance of nuclear power as a ‘bridge technology’ disappeared into thin air.

Instead of concern about what was happening in the aftermath of the disaster, all we heard were self-centred concerns about the safety of Germans and old-fashioned prejudices about the Japanese. The composure and discipline of those affected by the disaster, far from being praised, was more often seen negatively. German anti-nuclear groups even went so far as to refer to the composure of the Japanese as a reason why there is no anti-nuclear movement there.

The increasing concern in Germany about events abroad represents the globalisation of German fears. This becomes clear when one looks at how Germany has reacted similarly to a variety of events in the past. Whether it is a hurricane in New Orleans, a flood in Germany, or the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan, there is an almost automatic reaction to view the event as a symbol of the failure of human aspirations for security and progress. Commentators and politicians draw the conclusion that we humans are ultimately insecure and responsible for creating the danger. Take the catastrophe in a poor country like Haiti, which provoked considerable sympathy, demonstrated by the large donations made towards emergency relief. In the case of highly developed Japan, however, the response was much more a critical reaction against modern technology.

This view of the world leads straight back to further German navel-gazing. Crises and disasters are instinctively interpreted as threats to ourselves. This is not because we really expect to find atomic clouds from Japan floating over Germany, but rather because we think we have to try to learn from such events. Sadly, the lesson we draw is not to find new ways to overcome such tragedies and ensure they don’t happen again, but instead to emphasise human weakness and vulnerability. In this view, mankind is the real danger, not nature, because we foolishly believe we can control nature. It seems that the meaning of disaster is in the eye of the beholder.

Positive developments, like our increasing understanding of the world through science and the progress we have made against poverty and hunger, are ignored completely or perversely turned into negatives. In the globalisation of fear, there is no room for protecting ourselves against natural disasters, reducing harm to the environment, improving nuclear safety, or making the world more democratic and people-friendly.

Genuine global awareness requires real interest in people and their ways of life, and a willingness to look beyond our own noses to overcome prejudice and work together to solve problems. The German fear of globalisation represents the exact opposite of this spirit.

Matthias Heitmann is a freelance journalist and an editor of NovoArgumente the German sister magazine of spiked. Read his personal website here.

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