By Elke, Berlin
My eyes follow the smooth structure of the branch up towards the blue of the sky and meet brilliant endless fresh green whispering. For a few moments there is no sound, a peaceful calm. And then I see one arm of this old beech tree reaching out and wrapping around a branch of the neighboring beech, the two branches melted together in a neverending tender kiss. Growing in two different directions yet nurturing and supporting each other, building stability together. My human words can only try to describe what my eyes see and my heart senses all around. As this beech tree stands there in it’s own reality, and history, it is rooting down into the time of the earth where no humans existed.
In September of 2018, I along with two other Slingshot collective members were visiting the Hambacher Forest occupation in Germany. Two weeks later, the Anti Coal Movement ‘Ende Gelaende’ organized 50,000 people to protest on October 6 against the open pit coal mining and for the preservation of the Hambacher Forest. However, the day before the demo, news came that temporary protection for the Hambacher had been won, and the protest became a celebration. On October 5th, the OVG (Higher Administrative Court) in Münster suspended the clear-cutting in Hambach Forest until the VG (Administrative Court) of Cologne can come to a decision regarding the legality of open pit mining at the Hambi. Those involved in the process expect that this decision might not happen before the end of 2020.
It felt like victory until December 3, when the VG Cologne announced that they intend to come to a decision as soon as the first quarter of 2019. If the VG rules in favor of RWE, the energy company that is destroying the forest, they could start cutting immediately — although they can only cut between October and March.
The previous stance of the VG Cologne in favor of RWE gives little reason for optimism.
Here are my impressions (written in late September 2018) from my visit at the Hambacher Forest, the oldest still existing piece of ancient forest in Europe. It is also one of the sites of a 30 year battle of the environmental movement against the fossil fuel industry and for social justice.
Here, after the last glaciers melted about 10,000 years ago, a rich and fertile soil gave life to a growing and recreating web of plants and creatures, powerful and insecure, solid and fragile, in a constant, still ongoing process of changing, destabilizing, and balancing, fighting for light and growing out of decay.
There needn’t be a halt to this process of life and death, of building up layers on top of the earth’s hidden treasures. Unfortunately underneath my feet, deep down, the ancient ice formed thick brownish layers of lignite (brown coal, bituminous coal or soft coal). My ancestors discovered this hidden treasure and started to pull more and more of the brown gold into daylight. They had figured out that they could burn this lignite. And they got more and more hungry for the warmth, the energy, its possibilities: The possibility of the industrial revolution! Now we desperately need another ‘revolution’: Coal phase-out now!
A few steps out of the forest I’m once again facing our collectively created reality. I see an enormous wasteland that stretches to the horizon, the forest gone and the topsoil stripped away to expose the lignite. And at the distant edge of this nightmare thick yellow smoke wafts into the air out of several power plant towers. This vast, lifeless moonscape takes my breath away and I notice I am shivering.
Closer by is a huge steel monster, 60 people high and 2 football fields long. This is among the largest machine ever built, a giant rotary excavator and it cuts deep into the earth shoveling tons of coal onto conveyors that disappear toward the power plants on the horizon. It all looks like a horrific crime scene but the electricity generated allows me to turn my heater on when I’m cold and it powered the train I took to the Hambacher Forest. I hold up my sign at the edge of this disaster zone: “STOP COAL! PROTECT THE CLIMATE!” And I mean it! — and I also deep down know that I have to stop….and that one day I will stop. The question is how much I ‘take with me’ on that way? And I also know the right answer for this question deep down. I look at this wasteland and am aware of what I already have taken with me, consciously and often unconsciously as the inevitable result of my lifestyle: a warm shower, the washing machine, my tea kettle. And my sign doesn’t help me here; I feel my deep embeddedness.
The fight for the remaining Hambacher Forest (“Hambi bleibt!”) is both the fight against fossil fuel extraction (climate destabilization) and for forest protection (climate stabilization), because the forest here ‘protects’ the fossil fuels from our exploitive hands.
In 2012 environmentalists started to occupy the forest, building artful tree houses connecting them with bridges to little ‘villages’ and founded a community.
The biggest German environmental organization, BUND (Friends of the Earth), is fighting alongside the Hambacher Forest protectors. Since years this NGO is battling in front of the courts for a ‘Stop’ of the clear-cutting of the Hambacher Forest to protect the unique biosphere and an endangered species of bats in particular. The cutting was stopped for the 2017/2018 deforestation season (October till March) due to a court decision and when I was visiting in September a new court decision was still pending and the cutting season was about to begin in less then two weeks!
Germany is, despite its image as one of the most ecologically concerned countries, the largest producer of brown coal (lignite) in the world! And right now 30% of German’s energy production is from coal. And this coal is responsible for over 80% of the emissions in the power producing sector.
A new push towards clean(er) energy in Germany forced the government to install an advisory commission (members of industry, labor unions, climate scientists, economists and members of environmental organizations, including the BUND), the so-called ‘Coal Commission’, to develop a plan and time frame of how to phase out coal in the next years. The push this time is, compared to the 80s and 90s, less a grassroots movement than connected to economic questions of survival as a highly industrialized country. It is also strongly supported by technology driven interest groups. That makes me not very hopeful for the results of the ‘Coal Commission’. The German government was expecting the results of this commission for the beginning of December 2018 to bring them to the next UN Climate Conference in Poland that December. (Update 01/26/2019: The German government went with ’empty hands’ to Poland and the commission’s results were just published yesterday: the Hambacher Forest is saved and lignite/brown coal will be the first to be phased out by 2022, even though the overall results are rather a start of the phase out process than an agreement to an immediate time frame)
The (little) hope here is that the (slow moving) work of the ‘Coal Commission’ could at least function as a lever right now in the pending court decision (see above): Why should still more trees be cut down in one of the oldest remaining forests in Europe, the Hambacher Forest, if a legislative decision is made (soon?!) by the government to (finally!) stop coal?!
I feel a nervous energy, but filled with this hint of hope, amongst the almost 10,000 people out here for the ‘forest walk’ on this mild and sunny September day. It’s a game of time. RWE is not allowed to cut further trees down as long as the court decision (see above) is still pending. But they’re masking the eviction of the tree houses as ‘clearing’ the forest to prepare for the cutting (that might never happen!). In the late summer of 2018 RWE hired ‘forest cleaners’. They met a constantly growing group of protesters. Each weekend new barricades were built on the roads and around the tree houses and each week the ‘cleaners’ came in, facing more and more defenders. RWE asked for ‘police protection’ for the eviction of the tree houses. Tensions escalated when journalist Steffen Meyn lost his life while documenting the ‘cleaning raids’. He fell from one of the suspension bridges close to a tree house that was about to be evicted. His death was used by authorities and the media to criminalize and vilify the tree-protectors and supporters. Two weeks later his death feels a like a sacrifice to me. Each week(end) the resistance is growing, more people, all ages and from different socioeconomic backgrounds, are coming out into the forest and are serious, grim in their protest.
What else has to happen that the government pulls the legislative ‘trigger’ to stop the in all ways deathly coal energy producing corporations?!? While scientists are proving that the existing coal mining area, the giant wasteland next to the Hambacher Forest, can serve the coal power plants for another three years (and further extension of the coal production is not only unnecessary but obsolete with coal-phase-out on the way!), the coal commission is still taking its sweet time.
Of course I’m also aware that the Hambacher Forest is a symbol and a tiny part of the complex question of stopping coal production, fossil fuel use, constant population and economic growth, etc. and how to restructure (or destructure?) our industrialized societies in the time of ‘climate emergency’.
We’re getting more hectic, building barricades around the few remaining tree houses, pulling dead tree limbs, 50 feet and longer, out of the bushes, dragging them. 20 or more people pulling and pushing together and the limb moves slowly by slowly, with a lot of shouting and laughing closer to the pile of wood in front of the ditches that other people dug around the tree house area. Some people build tri-pods and suddenly a marching band comes in and suggests another rhythm.
We’re even more fired up to dig and drag and pile and deep inside I feel like David fighting Goliath, noticing the overwhelming anger mixed with doubts of success clogging my throat.
For how many days can we hold the destruction off?
To complete the picture: the whole scene is watched (or observed?) by the cops, 1000 of them out there that day, passively lined up to ‘direct’ us on or off the paths or ‘protect’ us from falling over the edge into the coal digging wasteland. Most of them seem very young and I see an emptiness in a lot of their faces — am I sensing in some of them that they are thinking to be on ‘the wrong side’? Mostly we’re ignoring them as much as we can. And we know, on other days, when the majority of visitors are back to their day by day lives, the police brutality towards the core group of protesters and tree-protectors is increasing.
Still, it feels like playing a game, I dislike the game, I dislike playing a role in it and dislike not having the imagination of how to step out, change the rules, spark the climate revolution!
“For a Living, Learning and Loving in Freedom” is what the Hambacher Forest community is standing for. My heart is with those words but my brain is tangled in the contradictory reality of being born in one of the world’s dominating countries.
There was one serious drop in emissions since 1990, worldwide, not only in Germany. And that was in 2009, after the ‘economic crisis’ hit at the end of 2008. Lesser production had an instant impact and illustrates our core involvement: consumption and the myth of constant economic growth.
Ende Gelaende says “There are no Jobs on a Dead Planet”. Minimal and local production leaves ships in the harbor, planes on the ground, less trucks on the street, less food variety in the stores and in our pots. And less wealth in all our pockets, not only in the pockets of a shrinking middle class.
Still, the slogan hits me painfully and it makes sense — to me it means we collectively have to accept to have fewer jobs. Personally I think there will be still a lot to do!
But I’m concerned with how to turn this message into an attractive picture for the future society: a lot of people identify with their job, a lot of people are afraid of losing their job or are already struggling economically.
Maybe a ‘universal income’ could be a good starting point for everyone to have the freedom to personally and ‘collectively’ (and globally?) re-evaluate our needs and ethics?!
I took the train back to Berlin with a feeling of unrest. I’m thankful to the activists in the trees and I am even more convinced that we can’t turn ourselves away from the urgency of changing our behavior. Otherwise their tree-sit is pointless, my marching is pointless. And if I’m changing just by myself it stays pointless as well until I fight with others in all possible ways — even against myself sometimes.
I can’t say if ‘our fight’ will be successful (which I hope as much as I doubt it), but it seems like the right thing to do. Organize — Question — Reorganize!
There are climate camps planned in several European countries and the connections are made to climate activists all around the globe.
Here are some websites to check for updates and local activities: