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Energy Poverty, A Loss of Dignity, and the Populist Gap

Katrin Grossmann
University of Applied Sciences Erfurt
Katrin Grossmann
University of Applied Sciences Erfurt

Abstract

Among the many interpretations of the rise of populism in the Western world, material deprivation or a fear of loss of status is one set of arguments (Mullis and Zschocke 2019). Another source is seen in the loss of dignity, in a lack of recognition (Fukuyama 2019) and thus growing distance between parts of the population and democratic institutions. Energy poverty is a situation of both material and emotional deprivation. It is commonly defined as a situation where a household does not have access to adequate energy services up to a socially and materially necessitated level (Bouzarovski and Petrova 2015). It is estimated that approximately 57 million Europeans suffer from cold homes in winter, and 104 million cannot keep their homes comfortable in summer . Gas- and electricity disconnections cut households from energy supply, which has a severe impact on material wellbeing, but even more so on self-esteem and public respect. It is widely accepted in the literature that energy deprivation has a negative effect on happiness and psychological health. The paper explores possible connections between the experience of energy poverty and a growing distrust in democratic institutions. Using qualitative interview data gathered in various research projects over the last years. with energy-poor households and household which did experience disconnections, I will show how this form of deprivation impacts the dignity of the households. They experience disrespectful treatment in institutions, even humiliation, they lose self-respect and find themselves in a state of dependence on family or external help instead of a self-determined possibility to overcome the situation. If these problems remain unaddressed or even deepen by public policy, a populist gap (Dubiel 1985) emerges where populist parties can step in and claim to represent the interest of such households against mainstream politics as is already the case, e.g. in Germany.