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Blog item: Denmark: A Case Study for How to Survive the Twenty-First Century

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12 comments, last: Jan-1-2009   Add a comment   Author:  PT (Dec-14-2008)    Play a Video
Categories: Economic/Financial, Philosophical & Quality of Life, Renewable Energy Sources, Sustainable Living

Denmark, part of ScandinaviaI have mentioned Denmark here at a few times over the last year.  Why?  Because they of all the more "developed" countries have been moving towards an enlightened energy and environmental position for the longest time, since the mid-1970s.  We should all be interested in what that effort consisted of, and what the results have been for that effort.

Due to the gas embargoes and resulting shortages in 1973, Denmark started their major overhaul of energy and environment in 1976.  Here are some of the steps taken (see Neatorama) then and more recently:

  • Strict energy-efficiency standards were placed on all buildings.
  • Gas and automobiles were heavily taxed (Today new cars are taxed at more than 105% of the cost of the car.)
  • "District heating systems" were implemented throughout the country, reusing normally wasted heat produced by power plants by piping it directly into homes. Today more than 60% of Danish homes are heated this way.
  • The government invested heavily in clean and renewable energy systems, especially wind power. Today 21% of Denmark's energy production comes from wind farms. On top of that, they lead the world in wind-power technology - another product to export. The industry has created more than 20,000 jobs.
  • Rebate campaigns helped people buy more energy-efficient - and therefore more expensive - home appliances. Today more than 95% of new appliances bought in Denmark have an "A" efficiency rating. ("A" is the best; "G" is the worst.)
  • They started drilling for - and finding - more oil and natural gas within their own waters in the North Sea. (Showing that no plan is perfect, these efforts have long been opposed by environmentalists.)
  • In 2005 the government committed $1 billion to develop and integrate better solar, tidal, and fuel-cell technology. 
 Unemployment rate in Denmark has shown overall decrease in the last 30 years
 Danish unemployment rate (click for larger image)


The standard of living in Denmark in my opinion (such an evaluation depends on one's priorities regarding what contributes to quality of life) exceeds that in the United States.  Although people are taxed more than in the United States, they have all their health costs covered, free high-quality university education, more vacation time from work than Americans, and guaranteed pensions.  The unemployment rate has also sank steadily for the last 15 years.

United States unemployment rate, while historically strong, is now showing signs of underlying weakness
United States unemployment rate (click for larger image)

There has been much discussion as well, and this is a large topic, on how one measures economic success.  One common measurement is Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  However, the way GDP is calculated omits many critical factors that need to be weighed as we move into the future: energy security (stability of supply), security from terrorism and from error (e.g. nuclear power plants), environmental pollution rates, and national child mortality, full life health, and life expectancy.  The GDP also omits other even less "tangible" but vital factors: happiness, political stability and government effectiveness (that is, effectiveness in serving the true needs of the county's residents), and psychological security, such as the ability to be sure that healthcare is available and that retirement will be affordable.

In Denmark, as far as I know, no older person lives on cat food as they may do in the United States.  No older person has to choose between health-sustaining medicine and food.  They have guaranteed pensions that support living costs, and free healthcare.  One day, assuming we live to a ripe age, we will all need to provide for ourselves.  Should that not be done with dignity and safety?  Isn't it a scandal that some adults who have worked all their lives have to live in extreme poverty in their old age?  Is that not part of our "national wealth" or lack of it? To me, the answer is the most basic of common sense.

In terms of life expectancy, the Western European nations overall slightly exceed the United States, by one to two years, although Denmark shows a life expectancy of 76.5 versus the United States expectancy of 77.1 years. Canada (79.4) and Australia (79.8) exceed the United States life expectancy by a marked gap.

Moving on to the other end of life, that is, going in reverse order, how many parents would mind government-provided (free or highly subsidized), quality childcare where children are provided educational stimulation while the parents work, as most European countries provide?  If a good education in a university was free, would that not lift a major burden from most parents?  We must not think that only a small number of Americans suffer from all these worries.  Even in relatively good times, before the current recession, tens of millions of Americans could not afford health insurance and did not receive quality healthcare.  The infant mortality rate in the United States is higher than in Cuba, and of course is higher than in the Western European countries.

I will close with a comment that I offered today at an online discussion (mostly held in 2007) at a philosophy-of-living Web site, where there were many comments debating what we could learn, if anything, from Denmark's experiences:

 A good discussion here. I would like to bring this back to what I see as fundamentals.  After much reading and study of policies around the world, it becomes clear that we are in for problems with energy supply AND global warming (not to mention food, water, and animal species survival) now and in the near future.

Based on what others have said here, it appears that Denmark still depends somewhat on their own oil and on coal.  However, they plan to produce 75% of their energy from wind by 2025.  What has my country (the USA) done so far?  Nothing significant.

When it all hits the fan (not the wind turbine), what area of the world, what country (if national borders hold up to the stress) will be more stable, one that depends on Russian or Mexican or Nigerian oil, all of them now in decline, or an area that has its own heat and electricity?  THAT is the fundamental that is currently somewhat hidden.  The problem is that when shortages occur in the not-too-distant future (5 years? 10 years?) it will be impossible to suddenly shift to renewable electric power that is not even available.

Those who burn animal fat, who use coal but also use the "waste" heat, and who have a plan toward totally renewable, domestic energy are WAY ahead of the rest of us.  I would gladly drive an older car to know that my family, my neighbors, and myself, will not freeze to death or starve due to no energy for heat or transport.  Where is OUR master plan?  Where was it 30 years ago when Denmark started theirs?  Nowhere to be seen... but maybe the USA will get going now.  Maybe.

What do you think?  Can the United States learn from the efforts of Denmark as well as other European nations, that have tried different approaches ranging from wind (Denmark) to solar (Germany) to nuclear (France), and other approaches?  Is the United States so different, so wonderful and unique, that we should be isolated from the experiences of every other country in the world?  And going beyond the immediate question of energy policy, should the United States citizens be concerned that our quality of life, our "non-negotiable" (George Bush) American way of life, will be destroyed if we allow government to provide guidance and policies that will attempt to lead us into a more reliable and possibly happier future?

I suggest that the answer is "No".  I also propose that we need to get very serious about solving our problems while we have a chance.  The next Middle Eastern or Russian oil embargo, or their own shortages leading to failure to export energy, could be just around the corner.  World oil production is at best at its peak for all time, and in likelihood is already declining, slowly for now and more rapidly with each new year, as old oil wells gradually hit bottom.  New oil discoveries have been plunging in quantity since 1970.  That being the case, what are we waiting for in developing a clean energy plan for the future?


A good article on Denmark's policies and practice, in addition to the above links:

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Comment by:  Wavehunter (William Coffin) (Jan-1-2009)   Web site
I do like a nice glass of Scotch, and all the better if it's produced by renewable means. Until, however, it is sent across the Atlantic on a sailing ship, then transported overland by solar-powered truck, I think Mexican rum and tequila will have to remain my ethical tipple of choice!

Happy New Year to all.
Comment by: James Alexander (Dec-30-2008)   Web site

Best Wishes for a Happy and Green-Blue Year 2009.
Drink a good malt Jura Whisky

I shall let you draw your own conclusions on Sir William Litngow's article in the Times - it could well be much of Europe may be getting her renewable energy from Scotland - it won't be clear since Scotland has I believe quite recently ruled it out.
Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Dec-30-2008)   Web site


Can you explain what you meant in your comment, and what the overall meaning of the links are that you provided, as you see it?


Comment by: JamesAlexander (James Alexander) (Dec-30-2008)   Web site

More automomous than Denmark who export about 100% of their variable wind power (Danish power for home use is coal based power plant) Strategy for autonomous energy production use and export Wind, Wave, Tidal, Hydro -powered Whisky Distilling - The Isle of Jura in Scotland

ref in:

Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Dec-19-2008)   Web site

I agree with you! American society will learn only through some prolonged difficulty. I think you are right about shuffling priorities due to the World War experience, as well as the fact that European cultures are older cultures, which can sometimes be a limiting factor in thinking outside the box, but can also lead to knowledge gained from experience.
Comment by:  Wavehunter (William Coffin) (Dec-17-2008)   Web site

Much hinges on how much Obama is able to change America, as well as how much he really wants to. In my ignorance I see two key differences between Americans and Danes which could mean the US is unable to follow the Danish lead. (Stand by for some gross generalisations - and, by the way, I'm neither Danish nor American so write with no authority about either nationality.)

First, Denmark belongs to a community of nations: the EU. It leads its neighbours in some things and follows in others. When it installs wind farms it is with a sense of confidence born from the fact that its neighbours are doing (or considering doing) the same thing. In contrast, Americans look down on other nations. America is number 1, so what have they to learn from others? And as for US neighbours, Mexico is looked down upon from a great height and Canada too, to a lesser degree. And anyway, neither Canada nor Mexico seem to be providing environmental leadership.

Second, the Danes (along with most Europeans) are 'post-materialists'. The experience of World War II gave them a new sense of what is important. So, for many Europeans, once they have a sufficiently comfortable lifestyle they prefer to invest in their surroundings (the community, the environment, poor people at home and abroad) through the vehicle of relatively high taxation. The US experience of the Second World War was very different: alone among nations, they profited from the War and suffered virtually no civilian casualties. Indeed, the War brought Bretton Woods and the dollar hegemony. Thus Americans retained their materialism which, when put alongside the nascent 'military industrial complex', led to a nation of great inequality (relative to Europe) that can't afford a national health service but can afford to spend more on defence than the next 30 countries combined.

So, can the US learn from Denmark? It will have to change a lot first and Obama has a heck of challenge on his hands there.
Comment by: auntiegrav (auntiegrav) (Dec-16-2008)   

Hi David,
I think you made a fair order for it to be implemented requires intelligent people and demands that don't exceed the capabilities and resources of those people.
The U.S. has far exceeded its resource base with consumption and now wants to consume its way out of a plastic bisphenol-A bag, but decades of selfishness and voluntary ignorance of reality have left us without the collective intelligence or motivation to do so.
The headlong rush toward the crisis of climate change is a speeding train without any brakes and we can't outrun the train to build a bridge over the chasm of stupidity.
Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Dec-16-2008)   Web site

Hello, Tim. Welcome to

I guess the point of the article is not necessarily to do exactly what the Danes did. However, it does point out that people are willing to make sacrifices when there is an intelligent long-term plan, and that as the end points of that plan approach there are substantial, serious benefits to that kind of course of action. Does that seem like a fair statement?
Comment by: Tim E. (Dec-15-2008)   

Yes, okay DANES. Your country is the size of Michigan. Managing a large country will never be as easy as managing what amounts to a state (or, in California, a county). As an Oregonian (a state roughly the size of Germany), I can assure you that if we were independent, many of these goals would have been met a while ago. Although admittedly, we're pretty libertarian, not very stoked about taxes. I imagine if someone tried to tax us 105% on automobiles, we'd all be pulling carts with horses.
Comment by: auntiegrav (auntiegrav) (Dec-15-2008)   

It works in Denmark because they have DANES.
We have a culture of comfort and competitive consumption. Unless we get leaders with the fortitude to implement without polling, and the intelligence to see reality, then there is little hope for becoming Dan-ish. Our infrastructure size is huge, but based upon an economy of useless actions. Most of our highways and buildings exist so that people can drive to work to have money to buy cars and clothes to drive to work. Most people don't care what kind of job they have, or what the end result is of their work. They only want to get paid.
It's time to send these people home and turn off the lights at the advertising agencies, and then all the places that only exist because they are marketed to a coerced population of drunkards and buffoons.
Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Dec-14-2008)   Web site

Thank you for broadening the discussion, WH. I was in Denmark in 1965, but that obviously pre-dates this discussion. However, I was extremely impressed even at that young age by the swarms of bicycles traveling the streets there.

For me the two most impressive points in Denmark's plans are:
1) the integration of effort across multiple areas (oil exploration, wind development, conservation, use of "waste" heat from power plants, etc), and
2) the goal of 75% energy from wind, which truly can take them out of the polluter category in a long-term, low-cost way. I know of no other country with such a high renewables goal - but tell me if I am missing some!
Comment by:  Wavehunter (William Coffin) (Dec-14-2008)   Web site

Good article David.

When I visited Denmark a few years back our bus driver was very keen to point out the wind turbines. The Danes seemed very proud of them. As to whether Denmark is a model nation environmentally, however, I don't know. Other countries might compete for the title: Iceland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Sweden, for example. All will have good and bad points.

One of the benefits of the European Union (there are others, as well as certain drawbacks) is that the populations of member states compare themselves with one another. People in Ireland ask why those in Luxembourg are better off financially; Luxembourgers ask why Swedes live longer; Swedes ask why the murder rate in Denmark is lower; Danes ask why the Maltese are less likely to die in a road traffic accident; and in Malta they ask why the infant mortality rate is lower in Cyprus. In each case politicians are put under pressure to improve things in their own country as the voters ask, "if they can do it, why can't we?"

It seems to me that the truth is that every country can learn from every other country, just as we can all learn from one another.

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About author/contributor Member: PT (David Alexander) PT (David Alexander)
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Member: PT (David Alexander) My lifelong pursuit, since age 18, has been to live more fully and find wisdom. This has involved studies with Zen masters, Tai Chi masters, and great psychotherapists while achieving my license as a gestalt therapist and psychoanalyst.

Along the way, I became aware of how the planet is under great stress due to the driven nature of human activity on this planet.

I believe that the advancement of human well-being will reduce societies addictive behaviors, and will thus also help preserve the environment and perhaps slow down the effects of global warming and other major threats to the health of human societies.

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