Energy, ecology and freedom. On the unfinished liberal revolution in the energy industry

Kacper Szulecki · 3 September 2014

Edward Gierek, former First Secretary of the Polish Communist Party, had energetic dreams about power. Back in the days of General Jaruzelski, work had begun on building an atomic power station in Żarnowiec. Recently, we have once again been hearing about a return to ideas dating back to Communist Poland. Meanwhile, all around us, new phenomena such as climate change and technological advances can be observed, forcing a fundamental revaluation in our ways of thinking about the production of energy. Now that Poland is experiencing a quarter of a century of democratic rule, it is a good moment to reflect upon the Transformation in this context.

We have entered a new era. In Europe, there is widespread discussion about the inevitable running out of coal and oil, the founding ingredients of contemporary world economy. Scientists keep drawing our attention to the role humans have played in global climate change. These two factors demand a response, which cannot be a short term bending of old rules. We are faced with the need to rebuild our energy manufacturing and the economy as a whole – a real revolution. Some members of the EU have already taken up the challenge. Germany is a case in point: even back under the governments of SPD and The Greens (1998-2005), the country adopted a plan to gradually restructure the energy sector, “exiting the atomic” and increasing the importance of renewable sources of energy (OZE) in the production of electricity. The Fukushima disaster simply accelerated this process. A decade on from its inception, it appears not only to be achievable, but – above all – remarkably inspiring. Germany has approached their energy transformation project with the verve of the US or USSR racing to put humans on the moon.


Meanwhile, in our country by the Vistula, these decisions and actions are either presented in a crooked light, or in categories of endangering Polish national business interests and an “invasion” of alien ideologies – a green blitzkrieg ushered in by cynical agents of foreign powers and well-meaning eco-crazies. Indeed, in many European countries this “new industrial revolution”, the transformation of the energy sector, is causing fear. In Poland, however, this danger being new and unknown unleashes unhealthy defensive mechanisms. The transforming of energy is hence instantly dismissed as an unwise, or indeed mad plan to apparently de-industrialise or even commit economic suicide.


The fossil fuel lobby is just waiting for Germany to trip up. Which isn’t surprising: the success of Energiewende would call into question the already difficult to justify, from an economic and ecological point of view, “cavalier” project designed by the Donald Tusk government of building atomic power stations. In addition, an energy transformation based on the “democratisation” of production – an idea which is roundly liberal – attacks the very foundations of the state/private monster that the energy sector became in Poland, post-1989.


Poland has a fundamental problem with the politics of its energy production. A lack of coherent strategy is compounded by a difficult initial situation (over-dependence on coal) along with factors of a cultural and psychological nature. It is fascinating to observe the energy-climate messianism of the ruling coalition party. In climate politics, according the the deputy prime minister Waldemar Pawlak, “we are alone, yet in the right”, suggesting the whole world has gone crazy, but our country is the last bastion of sane thinking. The Polish Academy of Sciences became famous for officially acknowledging the anthropogenic nature of climate change as the last national scientific institution in the world!

And so, there is nothing surprising in Polish political elites, until very recently, openly doubting the existence of climate change. Today, having been taught that the public repetition of such “arguments” causes them to be ostracised, they have taken to expressing them in private in an attempt to find support. What is interesting, in undermining the need to protect the environment our surprising ally in the community of industrial nations is… Russia. Any movements or organisations involved in protecting the environment are an ideal target for ruling forces. It is no longer remembered how key mass ecological protests were back in the 1980s in the dismantling of the communist regime. It has also apparently been forgotten by the current cabinet how the campaign to protect the Rospuda Valley was key in winning public opinion and added weight to the idea of the previous government being replaced by the Tusk team. Ecologists and their sympathisers have thus become “insane” members of the “green Taliban”, variously blamed for acting in the interests of Russia or of Germany – the heaviest accusations possible, equal to that of treason.

It is impossible, however, for this sort of approach, by political elites, to make sense (considering all the main players in the Polish parliament are in agreement on this) without taking into consideration political economies and the theory of public politics. The transformation of energy production, which is being forced upon us by climate politics (but also by cold reason), is not convenient for any of the “rulers” involved. That which is new is both difficult and uncertain. It is much easier to preside over a status quo, which in this case means clinging to coal – at any cost, against the interests of society. No one is currently suggesting that we abandon coal overnight, but we can start contemplating “decarbonisation” of the economy in terms of the year 2050. These are the visions presented by ecological circles, often called “hooligans” – visions not shared by the state apparatus itself. Antoni Kamiński and Jan Stefanowicz, members of the Institute of Political Studies (PAN) talk in context of strategic incapacity about the syndrome of governmental weakness. Energy politics, along with climate and environmental protection, are not therefore isolated cases, but rather manifestations of a certain malaise affecting the modern Polish state.


The most interesting example of the simultaneous inability to make a sensible decisions and the clinging on to well-worn patterns is the return to atomic power station proposals dating back to communist times. It was initiated in 1990 by the government of Tadeusz Mazowiecki, as a result of international pressure, as well as demand from his own electorate (vide the now forgotten referendum in the Wybrzeże region, a fascinating example of of democratic self-organisation on the local level). Once the twenty year moratorium was up, dreams of Polish atomic power returned. It is worth however looking at this project not from a purely technical side, but from a socio-political angle. An atomic power station has everything necessary for a grand infrastructural project in styles of old. It is immensely expensive, demands centralised planning and similar forms of management of energy systems, along with government controls and can be presented in terms of “progress” – at least in as much as “progress” was perceived back in the 1960s and 70s.

What is more, in order to build and run an atomic power station, the project must be separated from public influence. Any sort of democratic mechanisms are likely to derail the atomic train – no one is ever going to want to live, of their own free will, near an atomic power station, while many will ask discomforting questions about the disposal of dangerous waste, as well many more asking about the cost of huge subsidies received at present by those producing atomic power.

The building of the first ever atomic power station in a 21st century democratic state is thus either impossible, or presents an excellent opportunity to remove a portion of the state from the realm of conventional procedures of control. And hence to the limiting of democratic process, under the guise of acting in the name of necessity, rule of law, or stabilising of systems. This is a very attractive proposition, especially in a country in which energy production has become a state oligopoly.

At the other end of the spectrum we find distributed and civil energy resources. These demand a total reconfiguring of the form of thinking about energy strategies. Instead of several giant power plants, which can be centrally controlled, we have a countless number of small and often unstable sources demanding some form of coordination.

These two proposals are not necessarily, as the government would like it to be, a choice between economic growth and deindustrialisation, but are rather a clash of mental centralism and grassroots organisation; progress in Gierek style and real liberal democracy, based upon the empowerment of the individual and on trust. A “democratic” and widespread system of civic energy production demands not only individual enterprise, but a fundamental sense of collective responsibility – solitary elements will only work as a part of a whole and have to become integrated.

And yet, because challenges are, in the Polish way of thinking and governance, treated as a problem and not an opportunity for development, the idea of a widespread system of energy production meets with instant opposition from experts and the energy lobby. Renewable energy in Poland is growing, but it seems to be doing so in spite of the government – outside of official systems. Decisions made by the Donald Tusk cabinet along with their informal advisors, also the de facto responsible for the direction of energy politics government of the previous prime minister Jan Krzysztof Bielecki, are becoming more and more strange and opposed to the values declared by them.

It is hard to grasp why the prime minister and a large part of the post-Solidarity political establishment, with their liberal leanings, are so anti the idea of empowering society by making it a part-owner and part-investor in the a key sector of public politics, which in this case is energy production. What can be clearly seen, however, is that in the past 25 years not much has changed in this sector. Poland has somehow slept through a period of energy production transformation, and the liberal revolution in this field is being stifled by those who were once considered liberal.

This article is a part of Kultura Liberalna’s book “To place Poland in the centre”. See the table of contents here.