Excavators to plowshares

Teaser Image Caption
Occupation of an excavator in the Rhineland

Protests against strip mining and coal power are gaining support from left-wing groups. Stefanie Groll and Simon Straub explore the chances of a new alliance.

Germany has seen protests against coal for decades. In the past, it was mainly borne by citizens’ groups and established environmental NGOs such as Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND) and Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH). The protesters were mainly those directly impacted by the coal industry. Now, the protest is spreading.

On the ground for the long haul – citizens’ groups

People living near strip mines and power plants face existential issues: the loss of house and home to the excavators, relocation, air pollution and tainted drinking water. At the same time, however, many feel a bond to the coal industry with its supposedly secure, well-paid jobs. The coal companies are deeply rooted in local society and have close ties to the regions’ policymakers. Wherever they portray themselves as corporate citizens and engage in public service, opposition is not always welcome. Coal, its traditions and the jobs argument are part of the fabric of local communities. In favor or against – the conflict extends into local gatherings and families. Citizens’ groups such as Klinger Runde and Allianz für Welzow have been engaged in talks with energy giant Vattenfall for years. They are pursuing a strategy of cooperation, not confrontation, with negotiations, roundtables and mediation involving energy companies, trade unions, planning authorities and other stakeholders. Calls for phasing lignite out immediately are not acceptable to many citizens’ groups.

Lobbying as resistance – the established organizations

Environmental organizations such as Greenpeace, BUND or Climate Alliance Germany are positioned between citizens’ groups and the movement spectrum. At the same time, they maintain contact to political institutions and engage in lobbying. Following the rules of the political game, they try to use their influence to help achieve positive outcomes in coal and energy policy. Climate Alliance Germany was established in 2007 as “a broad alliance in order to counterbalance profit and power interests of the many players within the economic and political establishment of Germany and to channel and apply public pressure in order to overcome these blockades in climate politics”. Its members include churches, environmental groups, trade unions and consumer protection organizations. The strength of the established actors is their professional organization, networking and effective campaigning.

Earth first – the alternative ecological spectrum

In the spectrum of ecological activists, many express their protest through consumer behavior and lifestyles. They also engage in demonstrations, civil disobedience, occupations and blockades at various levels of escalation. The ecological spectrum encompasses ecologically-sound housing projects and rural communities, as well as subversive performance artists. Their interests focus primarily on nature and the climate. Unlike the left-wing spectrum, which mainly engages in criticism of the system, ecological activists address individual consumers and citizens – Use green electricity! Reduce your energy consumption! And so on. With regard to coal, the alternative ecological spectrum often concurs with the left wing in its analyses of the issues. It deploys a wide range of methods, from protest marches and bicycle tours to tree squatting.

System change, not climate change – the left wing

The left-wing spectrum can practice its critique of capitalism in protesting against coal. For leftist initiatives such as Interventionistische Linke Berlin (Klima AG) or the ausgekohlt campaign, large-scale coal plants and strip mines serve as points of attack against the prevailing conditions. Post-representative democracy favors this spectrum, as it largely consists of highly educated and eloquent members of the middle class. The coal complex is a good illustration of how private profits are gained through social and environmental exploitation. Coal and climate is not in itself the central contradiction, but rather the contradictory and reprehensible ménage à trois of coal, climate and capital. In this case, “capital” is used as more of a symbolic catch-all term for all of the factors that aid and abet a repressive economic system: privatization, deregulation and globalization. The analysis is not altogether new, but only in recent years did it gain a broader following willing to take action.

Keeping distance to power

Engagement with institutionalized policymaking tends not to be particularly relevant for the left-wing, alternative ecological spectrum, as they tend to view the process with fundamental skepticism. While concrete political events such as climate protection plans play a role in their strategic debate, they prefer to leave actively shaping them to established organizations. The movement has little contact to Social Democrat or Christian Democrat government circles. Indeed, the closeness of the Social Democrat economics minister to the union of the lignite industry was the subject of massive criticism in the summer of 2015, both from NGOs and grassroots groups. At the federal level, the opposition Green and Left parties are open to a progressive coal policy and progressive climate protection, and both are calling for a coal phase-out. At the state level, however, the movement and institutionalized party politics are worlds apart in the political debate surrounding lignite. In 2014, the Left party, a member of the governing coalition in Brandenburg – one of the three major coal states together with North Rhine-Westphalia and Saxony – voted to expand the Welzow Süd II lignite strip mine against the resistance of environmental organizations and more than 120,000 objections from citizens. In North Rhine-Westphalia, the Greens are in an awkward position: while they are calling for a general ban on further coal plants and want to end coal power as quickly as possible, their Social Democrat coalition partners would like to continue using the fossil fuel for a long time yet as a bridging technology. The coalition agreement thus leaves considerable wiggle room with regard to energy issues.

From the climate movement to the anti-coal movement

Networking and mobilization for the climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009 (COP15) proved resource-intensive for the movement. The outcome of the local “Reclaim Power” mass action was therefore all the more frustrating. The international climate (justice) movement crumbled before it had even properly gotten off the ground. In the wake of COP15, activist groups changed their strategies and abandoned summit-hopping. Instead, they decided to tackle the climate crisis at its origins. For Germany, strip mines and coal-fired plants were identified as targets. The coal protests of the left-wing spectrum took place in the two major coalfields, the Rhineland and Lusatia. The left-wing protesters consciously eased their previous limitation to their respective local coalfield over the past one and a half years. Activists traveled across the country for a nationwide mobilization with human chains, climate camps and the Ende Gelände campaign. This is a sign of growing confidence in their own strength and the result of networking activities under the name “Energiekämpfe in Bewegung” (Energy Battles in Motion, EkiB).

Using the Paris momentum

In recent years, the international relations of the left-wing and alternative ecological spectrum remained at the level of benevolent coexistence, which was partly due to regionalization and a focus on lignite mining. As mentioned above, anti-coal activists had abandoned summit hopping, and so groups belonging to the EKiB spectrum have not called for (mass) actions in the run-up to the Paris conference. Nevertheless, German activists are expected to be present at the summit with a joint action plan to harness the Paris momentum and promote further mass civil disobedience against coal in 2016, hoping to ride the wave for a Europe-wide anti-coal campaign. The participation of 300 international protesters in a separate march at Ende Gelände (Here and no further) gave reason for optimism, as has networking between German and Polish activists in Lusatia. The emphasis on Lusatia in 2016 could also open up exciting new levels of cooperation in the region for transnational activism.

The coming months and years will show whether coal-critical groups will come together to form an anti-coal movement comparable to the anti-nuclear movement. The challenge for the alternative left-wing spectrum will be to keep up the pace and build on its successes.  Organizations such as Climate Alliance Germany can serve as mediators between the left wing and center. The German federal government is not set to address the issue of phasing out coal before the next general elections. For now, it considers the instrument debate to have been concluded with the “climate contribution” for old lignite plants. And for precisely for this reason, continued pressure from below is needed – from a broad alliance that has settled in for the long haul.