Navigation – Plan du site

Undermining life

A German coal-mining region [focus]
Stine Krøijer et Mike Kollöffel
Traduction(s) :
Miner la vie

Résumé

Since 2015 Ende Gelände has become the slogan of a growing anti-coal movement in Germany, which has united around protests against the continued expansion of lignite mining in the country. The slogan plays on the double of meaning of “an area coming to an end” and “a practice in an area being ended”, pinpointing in this way both the main problem with mining and its possible solution. In this essay we visually convey the landscapes of destruction in a German brown coal region, and argue that the massive destruction of the landscape works as a synecdoche for the apocalypse. Local villagers’ experiences of having their form of life ended owing to open-cast mining, and radical environmental activists’ ongoing preparations for a Day X and an ensuing post-apocalyptic scenario, entail a substitution of the area (gelände) for the whole world.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

  • 1 See Gastón Gordillo, Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction, Durham, NC, and London, Duke University (...)
  • 2 See Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime, Cambridge, Polity Press, (...)
  • 3 Lawrence Gross, “The Comic Vision of Anishinaabe Culture and Religion”, American Indian Quarterly, (...)
  • 4 Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “Who Is Afraid of the Ontological Wolf? Some Comments on Ongoing Anthr (...)

1In recent years the description of disturbed and ruined landscapes of modernization and progress has found its way into the ethnographic literature.1 This literature resonates with a much more common and generalized concern about the virtues of Enlightenment thinking,2 including the extent to which rationality and human control over nature lead to better human lives. Political groups from many quarters point out that the scramble for natural resources engenders despair and awakens worries and speculations about an impending climate catastrophe and even the end of the world as we know it. Indeed, some people’s worlds have already ended: Lawrence Gross has argued that the Anishanabee, along with many other Native American peoples, are suffering from a post-apocalypse stress syndrome as an effect of European colonization and domination;3 and Eduardo Vivieros de Castro follows a similar line of thought when advocating that the end of the world as we know it is a distinct possibility. He suggests that “we [inhabitants of former colonial powers] will have a lot to learn from people whose world has already ended a long time ago.”4

2Here we suggest that even in Germany, that is, in the heart of European industrial capitalism, it is possible to identify groups who experience their world to be ending. To local villagers in the Rhineland lignite region this is a result of forced resettlement, demolition of homes and undermining of past village life. To activists, who have occupied a forest to curb the expansion of the Hambach mine since 2012, an approaching eviction and clearcutting of the forest is an imminent catastrophic event that marks the beginning of a new period. Activists are unsure of what the future has in store for them, but to prepare themselves some look to indigenous peoples and strive to learn from them how to make a new, feral life in a destroyed landscape.

Digging to the end of the world

Fig. 1. Escarvations, Garzweiler, July 2016

Fig. 1. Escarvations, Garzweiler, July 2016

Photo : Mike Kollöffel

3The Rhineland lignite region lies between the cities of Cologne, Aachen and Mönchengladbach. Here, some 65 million years ago, the combination of temperature and pressure formed a deposit of approximately 50 billion tonnes of lignite (or brown coal), located between 40 and 200 metres beneath the surface of the earth. The first written accounts that testify to the existence of lignite in the area date back to AD 58 but the resource was not systematically used before the 17th century, when fuel scarcity led to more intensified excavation. The first licences for commercial exploitation were given in 1812 under the Napoleonic Mining Law,5 but industrial production did not begin until the turn of the 20th century, in the western part of the area, where the Inden and Hambach open-cast mines are located today.

4The region became the powerhouse of early northern European industrialization. Placed near the border to France, Belgium and the Netherlands, these resource-rich lands were a recurring reason for acts of war, but after World War II, a shared concern for the smooth distribution of raw materials played an important role in the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community, the precursor of the European Union. The urban areas in the Ruhr District underwent rapid economic development based on mining, but still today the area is the home of some of Germany’s largest open-cast lignite mines, mainly owned and operated by the electric utility company RWE (Rheinisch-Westfälisches Elektrizitätswerk AG). The Garzweiler mine alone covers an area of an area of almost 100 km2, and is the largest of the three mines in the area, which, it is planned, will keep being expanded until 2045.

5The Hambach mine is the largest hole in the ground in Europe, and the bucket-wheel excavator (BWE) – constructed for open-pit mining on this scale—is the largest vehicle on earth. In the vicinity of this man-made hole, human beings paradoxically appear both extremely powerful, yet small and absolutely impotent. The excavator is used to remove the top soil to reach the layers below that contain lignite, which is carried by rail to one of the several power plants located in the area. The “overburden” or removed top soil is transported to various sites within the area previously mined, where various artificial Höhen (hills) are constructed. In this way the excavation fundamentally alters, disfigures and transforms the landscape. The sheer scale of destruction subdues any expectation of being able to continue life as usual in the area.

Fig. 2. Bucket-wheel excavator, Garzweiler, July 2016

Fig. 2. Bucket-wheel excavator, Garzweiler, July 2016

Photo : Mike Kollöffel

Being disappeared

6The gently rolling landscape surrounding the Garzweiler mine is fertile agricultural land scattered with little villages and towns established over a time span of 7,000 years. In 2015 the main street of the little village of Borschemich ended in the mining pit. The street was a row of empty, dark houses where windows had been shuttered as their inhabitants moved away. A black plastic bag covered the timetable on the bus stop, to draw attention to the fact that the local bus was no longer running. Most inhabitants had already left Borschemich, but a few houses were still inhabited by families refusing to leave. What was left of resistance was endurance; a stern opposition to giving up the place and form of life associated with it. Court cases have been lost and calls from NGOs to halt the expansion of the mine ignored by the government of the region. In a statement made by Gelbe Band, the association of affected Grubenrand communities, local inhabitants explained, “We have lost our Heimat [homeland],” with its “familiar paths, playmates next door, first lovers, and the protective homes of our parents. […] They are digging it all away under our feet.”

Fig. 3. Ruined house, Immerath, April 2018

Fig. 3. Ruined house, Immerath, April 2018

As the slogan Ende Gelände reminds us, these houses have become symbols of sites that are coming to their end.

Photo : Mike Kollöffel

Fig. 4. Clearing, Immerath, April 2018

Fig. 4. Clearing, Immerath, April 2018

Photo : Mike Kollöffel

7Now, the village of Borschemich has disappeared. Since the mid-1950s in Rhineland as a whole 40,000 people have lost their homes and faced compulsory expropriation and relocation. Today, the neighbouring village of Immerath, once the home of some 1,200 people, is deserted and reduced to rubble. The Immerath dome, as the local church was called, was first constructed in the 12th century, but demolished in 2018. Mertens, a local inhabitant of the village, has returned on various occasions to watch the inevitable demolition of his home where he lived with his wife and their two daughters. RWE offers compensation and reparation to the villagers through, among other means, the construction of new towns bearing the same names as the ones demolished. Thus, in Immerath Neu, new houses have been constructed, a new church in a more contemporary architectural style, and the churchyard from the old village has been relocated. But even though villagers have been offered a brand-new and refurbished life, they are full of longing for their past, more authentic world. The demolition of their home entails the annihilation of (the possibility of) a way of life in accordance with the German Romantic tradition, where the (idyllic) rural village and Heimat represented closeness and communality as well as existential security and a sense of reliability.

Fig. 5. Roadsign to former village of Borschemich, April 2018

Fig. 5. Roadsign to former village of Borschemich, April 2018

Photo : Mike Kollöffel

8In the forest at Sophienhöhe, a reforestation project started by the RWE on a 330-metre-tall hill of overburden from the Hambach mine, we encounter a middle-aged man out walking his dog. He conveys a feeling of powerlessness and impotence produced by the disfigured landscape: “If something should have been done, it should have been done 20 years ago,” he says, shrugging his shoulders, “now everything is too late.” The man is from Elsdorf, a larger village squeezed between the edges of Garzweiler and Hambacher mines, and the forest where he is now walking his dog was planted some 20 years back as a compensation for the old-growth Hambacher forest. It used to be a 5,500-hectare primeval forest, considered by many to be among the last Central European forests of high ecological value. Now only a fraction is left, and the reforested area at Sophienhöhe does not really make up for the loss. The new forest does not “feel real”, he explains. This unreal quality is not so much caused by the religious connotations in RWE’s district planning, which has led to the reconstruction of Jesus Christ's via dolorosa up the hill of the overburden, but is ascribed to the fact that the forest is same-aged and said to be “artificially” biodiverse. Local villagers’ experience of having their form of life undermined was not made up for by shiny new things, homes and forests; the all-encompassing scale of local change generated a sense of an ending, which involved references to “everything” being destroyed.

Fig. 6. Coal mine seen from the edge of the pit, Garzweiler, July 2016

Fig. 6. Coal mine seen from the edge of the pit, Garzweiler, July 2016

Photo : Mike Kollöffel

Preparing for Day X

9Six years ago a group of environmental activists took up life in the remainder of Hambacher forest, determined to curb the expansion of the mine by stopping the advancing logging machines. In the face of the destructiveness of mining and its likely climate effects, the group constructed a number of tree-sits in tall beech and oak trees, which were supported by a local base camp, set up on the land of a local farmer, who was also resentful about losing his land to the diggers. Not unlike the local villagers, activists awaited a future date when their forest occupation would be evicted and the forest cut, Day X, but their waiting time was filled with activities and actions, including a search for a more feral lifestyle. Tree-sitting is a political tactic which has been in use during the past 30 years by activists favouring direct action, organized internationally in the Earth First! network. Activists take up residence on treetop platforms, some 30 metres above ground, and the tactic rests on the presumption that logging companies are reluctant to cut down a tree with a human being dwelling among the top branches. Apart from being considered a form of direct action in and of itself, tree-sitting is also a means to create public attention in environmental campaigning.

Fig. 7. Typical tree house, tree-sitting, Hambacher forest, October 2015

Fig. 7. Typical tree house, tree-sitting, Hambacher forest, October 2015

Some groups try to fight so as not to see their world collapse, while preparing, resigned, for the day when the forest will be cut down.

Photo : Mike Kollöffel

  • 6 Monkey Town was the first forest occupation and base camp established in a forest meadow nearby th (...)

10Everybody in the camp and forest occupation was highly aware that it was unlikely that their action would achieve its end and that Day X might be approaching soon. The gloomy prospects of the day that police would drag them to jail and clear the forest was supported by the knowledge that lignite accounts for one-quarter of Germany’s energy consumption, and despite the country's seemingly progressive Energiewende (energy transition) policy, attempts at placing a carbon tax on fossil fuels were prevented in 2015 by company lobbyists in unison with the mining workers’ union. Hannah, an activist who had lived in the forest since the beginning of the occupation, described the situation to me as follows as we talked in her treehouse: “Many of the people who started the forest occupation, back when Monkey Town6 existed, are gone now. They simply burned out, got too sad when the trees were felled, or the repression just got to them […] but I intend to be here when Day X comes.”. In using the term Day X she conveyed the sense that not only her world, but the whole world might be ending soon. Paradoxically, this also made it imperative to keep “building alternatives”. Life in the forest is seldom easy owing to fears, paranoias and recurring clashes with the police and mining security forces, uncertain supplies of food and water as well as difficult conditions for organizing daily activities such as firewood collection, dishwashing, cooking and maintenance of compost toilets.

Fig. 8. Shelters built in meadow camp, Hambacher forest, October 2015

Fig. 8. Shelters built in meadow camp, Hambacher forest, October 2015

Photo : Mike Kollöffel

  • 7 Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, New York, Free Press, 1992.

11In learning to live in the forest, many activists looked to indigenous peoples, who are held out both as examples of endurance against extractivism and as experts at desired living skills which would enable one to survive after the apocalypse. Wrench was among those activists in the camp who had developed stronger anarcho-primitivist sensibilities; he expressed a desire to go to Finland to spend at least a few years on his own in the forest. In his view civilization “is going to fall and most of humanity will go down with it. The rats, our companion species, are probably the only ones who will survive unless we learn to live in the wild,” he explained. Increasingly, capitalist civilization was seen in this milieu as the endpoint not only of history,7 but also of itself and of humanity. This apocalyptic outlook rested on having the earth removed below their feet, on seeing their own world annihilated, and on the increasing anticipation of a total system collapse owing to capitalism’s own systemic death drive.

Fig. 9. Meadowcamp, Hambacher forest, October 2015

Fig. 9. Meadowcamp, Hambacher forest, October 2015

Photo : Mike Kollöffel

  • 8 Tord Austdal, World-Making in the Mountains: Post-Apocalyptic Utopianism in Southern Appalachia, P (...)

12The combination of environmental sabotage to make the system fall and learning new skills to survive in a post-apocalyptic scenario is a growing trend among radical environmentalists also beyond Germany, particularly thriving in Earth First! circles. Tord Austdal describes anarcho-primitivist communities in the US and their efforts to disseminate so-called “primitive living skills” through gatherings and movement rendezvous.8 In this context, skill sharing addresses the ability to immerse oneself in, connect to and live in the wilderness, for example by acquiring fire-making skills or by learning to forage and refine leather, pelts and steel, and build sustainable homesteads. This also involves drawing lineages and lines of thought that connect anarcho-primitivists to Native Americans. Like Austdal, Wrench interprets the learning of such new skills as pointing towards a post-apocalyptic future where they will be essential for survival.

13In the search for a more feral lifestyle and a new beginning, activists project anti-civilizational sentiments onto indigenous peoples, who are generally cast as both closer to nature, living more authentically and with few means and as unwilling to sell off the natural resources on which their life depends. To some activists in the Hambacher forest, such as Wrench, the common denominator between themselves and indigenous peoples was this dedication to “care for the land”. With explicit reference to Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s work, one activist commented that “we also have the right to ontological self-determination”, thus suggesting not only that Europeans might have a lot to learn from indigenous people, but also that some radical environmental activists have already begun to identify with them in light of the impending catastrophe.

***

14Lignite mining in the Rhineland is causing multiple ends of worlds: the life and history of local villagers in an area is destroyed when small villages are expropriated and demolished to allow for the expansion of lignite mining, and young activists see the end of their project of resistance, consisting in alternative life-making in the occupied Hambacher forest. In this situation, indigenous peoples of the Americas already serve as model for different life-projects after the apocalypse. According to activists, Day X arrived on 6 September 2018 when police arrived in large numbers to evict the treehouses. Two weeks later the process of eviction already had a very concrete and unfortunate end, as an activist-journalist died owing to a fall from a rope ladder during an encounter with the police in a tree 20 metres above the ground. In the narratives of these events, the destruction of the forest, the area and its different forms of life reverberate with each other, and the singular Day X comes to entail and stand as synecdoche for the ultimate destruction of the whole world.

Haut de page

Notes

1 See Gastón Gordillo, Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction, Durham, NC, and London, Duke University Press, 2014; Erik Harms, “Eviction Time in the New Saigon: Temporalities of Displacement in the Rubble of Development”, Cultural Anthropology no. 28/2, pp. 344–368.

2 See Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2017.

3 Lawrence Gross, “The Comic Vision of Anishinaabe Culture and Religion”, American Indian Quarterly, no. 26/3, 2003, p. 437.

4 Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “Who Is Afraid of the Ontological Wolf? Some Comments on Ongoing Anthropological Debate”, Cambridge Journal of Anthropology, no. 33/1, 2015, p. 6.

5 BUND, Lignite Mining in the Rhineland: Garzweiler II, Düsseldorf, BUND, 2017. https://www.bund-nrw.de/fileadmin/nrw/dokumente/braunkohle/2017_11_02_Lignite_mining_in_the_rhineland_Garzweiler_II_01.pdf

6 Monkey Town was the first forest occupation and base camp established in a forest meadow nearby the first tree-sits. It was evicted and cleared in 2014, and the trees of some of the first tree-sits were felled.

7 Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, New York, Free Press, 1992.

8 Tord Austdal, World-Making in the Mountains: Post-Apocalyptic Utopianism in Southern Appalachia, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Bergen, 2016.

Haut de page

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1. Escarvations, Garzweiler, July 2016
Crédits Photo : Mike Kollöffel
URL http://journals.openedition.org/terrain/docannexe/image/18146/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 185k
Titre Fig. 2. Bucket-wheel excavator, Garzweiler, July 2016
Crédits Photo : Mike Kollöffel
URL http://journals.openedition.org/terrain/docannexe/image/18146/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 157k
Titre Fig. 3. Ruined house, Immerath, April 2018
Légende As the slogan Ende Gelände reminds us, these houses have become symbols of sites that are coming to their end.
Crédits Photo : Mike Kollöffel
URL http://journals.openedition.org/terrain/docannexe/image/18146/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 207k
Titre Fig. 4. Clearing, Immerath, April 2018
Crédits Photo : Mike Kollöffel
URL http://journals.openedition.org/terrain/docannexe/image/18146/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 176k
Titre Fig. 5. Roadsign to former village of Borschemich, April 2018
Crédits Photo : Mike Kollöffel
URL http://journals.openedition.org/terrain/docannexe/image/18146/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 218k
Titre Fig. 6. Coal mine seen from the edge of the pit, Garzweiler, July 2016
Crédits Photo : Mike Kollöffel
URL http://journals.openedition.org/terrain/docannexe/image/18146/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 159k
Titre Fig. 7. Typical tree house, tree-sitting, Hambacher forest, October 2015
Légende Some groups try to fight so as not to see their world collapse, while preparing, resigned, for the day when the forest will be cut down.
Crédits Photo : Mike Kollöffel
URL http://journals.openedition.org/terrain/docannexe/image/18146/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 268k
Titre Fig. 8. Shelters built in meadow camp, Hambacher forest, October 2015
Crédits Photo : Mike Kollöffel
URL http://journals.openedition.org/terrain/docannexe/image/18146/img-8.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 118k
Titre Fig. 9. Meadowcamp, Hambacher forest, October 2015
Crédits Photo : Mike Kollöffel
URL http://journals.openedition.org/terrain/docannexe/image/18146/img-9.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 170k
Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Stine Krøijer et Mike Kollöffel, « Undermining life », Terrain [En ligne], 71 | avril 2019, mis en ligne le 13 mai 2019, consulté le 22 octobre 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/terrain/18146 ; DOI : 10.4000/terrain.18146

Haut de page

Auteurs

Stine Krøijer

University of Copenhagen

Mike Kollöffel

Independant photographer

Haut de page
  • Logo INSHS
  • Logo Université Paris Lumière
  • Logo Université Paris Ouest
  • Logo MAE - Maison Archéologie Ethnologie
  • Logo FMSH-Diffusion
  • OpenEdition Journals