Revisiting the Rhineland

As if nothing has ever been around here. It looks like people built a small cathedral on a meadow. Is our memory playing a trick on us? A friend and I are in Immerath, an evicted small town between Erkelenz and the Garzweiler open lignite coal mine in the Rhineland. We had heard that Immerath is right in the process of being dissolved. A year ago, when we had last been here, people had already told us of the disappearance of a hospital right at the entry of the town, where we could see a destruction site. The people had shared their memories of that hospital as the place there many of them had been born and where many relatives had died. We heard the stories but now I know I couldn’t really understand them. We spent a week in and around Immerath, occupied and reopened an abandoned school, replanted the gardens, danced, baked pizza and teased the mining company RWE responsible for the eviction and destruction of Immerath. Last summer there was one family left in Immerath but there were almost all houses still standing. The school, the cathedral and our vigil formed the centre surrounded by streets and family homes

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The destruction of Immerath’s cathedral from 1890 is scheduled for january 2018. Already most of the houses around it are gone. Grass is planted where they used to stand. Nothing indicates the former existence of those houses any more. As if nothing has ever been there.

For years cooperiders and climate justice activists have come to the Rhineland to witness a mine, for climate camps, for Ende Gelände actions of mass civil disobedience and the forest occupation of the Hambacher Forest. Most of us do not come to the Rhineland because of the forced movement of people in the region. We come because of the climate crisis produced by the burning of fossil fuels. We come because RWE is profiting on a business that lets the glaciers melt in the Andes, that lets the sea level rise in Fiji and that lets the permafrost melt in the Arctic. We come because those changes destroy the livelihoods of people who did not contribute to a changing climate and we come because we think that this is unjust. The relocation of people, the air pollution and the deforestation in the Rhineland add to this injustice.

Facing these injustices it sounds like an inhuman rearranging of priorities when Alexander Graf Lambsdorff from the free marked party FDP calls the end of coal mining an “industrial suicide”. The fact that coal mining and burning in full awareness of all its negative consequences is still happening shows by what principles our society is governed. Apparently, economic interests of the powerful corporations weigh more than the protection of livelihoods and conservation of the environment which we live off. Facing climate injustice would have been a lot easier if not powerful people, institutions and corporations like the entire fossil fuel industry had profited so much from it. The ignorance of governments towards threatening changes of our environment while holding on to the obviously illegitimate shows just how much we are controlled by powerful companies and how tiny a role reason and morals play.

Facing corruption of state power we often see no other way than to take things into our own hands and engage in direct actions targeting not policies but actually stopping carbon emitters, the actors of climate injustice. Kohleauststieg ist Handarbeit – ‘Stopping coal is manual labour’ is one of our slogans. Being part of a direct action enhances the perception of corruption: blocking a coal digger convinced that we do so to protect what is essential to life and then being met by police determined to stop us brutally undermines trust in the various governments involved to an extend which no text or lecture can do.

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Change is initiated by creating alternatives and by overcoming the old. Next to NGOs and citizen associations there are continuous channels of direct action on the Rhineland: amongst them the forest occupation Hambacher Forst and the mass actions of civil disobedience Ende Gelände.

What remains of the Hambacher Forest has been occupied since 2012 with temporary evictions. People try to resist deforestation by building tree houses. They put their own bodies in the way of tree harvesters. Each cutting season which stretches from October to march RWE is allowed to clear cut about 80 hectares of the formerly 5500 hectare old grown forest. There are about 200 hectares left and many things indicate that the part of the forest where most tree houses are stands on RWE’s cutting plan for this season. The occupation creates a red line towards the expansion of coal mining externally and a space for emancipation internally. Both are equally important regardless of measureable success. Climate Justice is not restored if the diggers and forest harvesters stop tomorrow and we still achieved a lot after the whole forest has been clear cut. The occupation is reconnecting people in living communally and organising autonomously. There are three things that I experience frequently in the occupation that stand for the success of it. First is sharing the absurd story of coal mining and deforestation to visitors and media. Second is the communal living emancipated to a degree not seen outside the forest. And third are the daily visits of local neighbours and supporters from the wider region who come to enjoy the forest, pay a visit to occupiers or leave donations. One day I met Gerhard who had lived in a village until it was caved away by RWE who said that the growing resistance to coal mining made him feel seen and acknowledged with his experience of displacement. Many local people share that they see new hope dawning onto their resignation facing king coal.

On November the 5th Ende Gelände had its second mass action this year. Thousands of people flooded the Hambach mine with their protest. Being a one day action it couldn’t have the ambition to severely interfere with the extraction and burning of lignite coal as it was in the former actions. it was a utterly successful action anyway. The measure of success is tricky. The first reason for me to say that the November action was successful are all the happy exhausted people that came out of the mine on Sunday night. Crossing the border of legality always poses a risk to mental and physical wellbeing and that the vast majority entered and then left the mine in relatively good condition (even when kicked by a horse) is a success in itself. The experience and routines the activists and organizers have gained over last years surely plays an important role in this. A second reason to call the action a success is the space created in the wake of the action to demand the end of coal. Other environmental organisation can more easily work towards policies and even the green party is actively working towards the end of coal. The topic comes from a fringe of the political spectrum to its centre. A third reason to call the action a success is the union of struggles and groups. The whole action was embedded within other actors and structures: about two hundred activists slept in a spontaneous camp in the Hambacher forest, local associations suported the infrastructure, the Pacific Climate Warriors hold a ceremony at one of the Ende Gelände vigils….. The authorised demonstration that was as much part of the action choreography as the disobedient groups welcomed and included people who preferred that as their way of expression. Busses traveled to the Rhineland from 13 countries. Activists engaged and expressed opinions on topics such as deforestation, colonialism and queer feminism. “Ende Gelände – Hambi bleibt, one struggle, one fight!” was shouted as much as “We’re here, we’re queer, the end of coal is near!” Nonetheless, more can be done to broaden the movement. Ende Gelände still moves in quite a bubble of middleclass academics.

In the last two weeks there have already been two further actions of disobedince; one by sugar in the tank and one by JunepA. Very few talk about COP23 without talking about coal. What a collective success.

Successful or not, being part of direct actions and engaging in what I think is meaningful helps me stay sane amongst all the reports of climate crisis , environmental destruction and global injustice. I hope that we do not do all of this just for ourselves, I hope others can profit and that we enact change, but I surely profit a lot, too.

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Day 13 Bochum – Düsseldorf

Waking up to the smell of freshly baked bread was a perfect start into the day. After breakfast with our great hosts at Soziales Zentrum Bochum we welcomed Marlies, Peer and a friend, three locals accompanying us for the day. Already the evening before, Juno had joined us, who spontaneously decided to ride with us all the way to the Climate Camp.
Today’s 70km ride was all about  black coal’s footprint in the Ruhr area. The first stop was Zeche Zollverein, once Germany’s biggest coal mine that stopped production already in the 1930s. Thanks to our fellow local riders, we got an introduction to the ways black coal has formed the identity of Essen and the wider Ruhr area. Contemplating the traditional alliance of social democrats, mining unions and dirty mining businesses – a challenge we are also facing in the case of lignite – we cycled on.
After the usual minor incidences, such as broken gear changers and punctures, our next stop was RWE in Essen. We did a photo action in front of their former headquarter, where big posters announced the new company Innogy, which was recently founded to take over the renewable business activities. This step can be seen as an indicator that even the most stubborn energy “dinosaurs” cannot ignore the trend to renewable energy any more. On the other hand continues lignite to take up over 35% of RWE’s electricity production, which uses all its lobbying power in favour of keeping Germany’s fossil fuel subsidies. This company thus remains on the wrong side of history and deserves naming, shaming… and civil disobedience.
Still having the better part of today’s journey in front of us, we struggled on over hills and through the forest towards Muehlheim. A short game of “ninja” in the heavy rain gave us the energy for the last bit towards Duesseldorf. Close to 8pm we finally arrived in Duesseldorf in the amazing Niemandsland. It was a long, but highly enjoyable ride!

Day 12 Münster – Bochum

After a hearty breakfast with saved bananas, we departed from the Umwelthaus in Münster. Cycling along the lake Aasee and the surrounding rural landscape of the Münsterland was very calming and offered room to contemplate, for massage lines and creative picture poses during our breaks.

 

Our destination for the day was Bochum, a city strongly connected to the past extraction of black coal in this area of Germany. Münster, a town historically characterized by trade and surrounded by agriculture thus stood in stark contrast to Bochum, also expressed through the change from a rural to an urban landscape.

Getting closer to Bochum I felt a light tension rising within me. Knowing that the cultural identity of the inhabitants of this area was still strongly connected to coal mining, I felt like a malign organism entering a space of confrontation. I was unsure how we would be perceived by the local population.

These thoughts were frequently interrupted by sudden rain showers and urgent bike repairs. These forced breaks always pose a challenge in our bike ride, as they can break a good cycling rhythm and shorten our time with the local hosts or the time we need ourselves. Nonetheless I feel these little accidents are an important and necessary lesson and a chance to grow as a group. In the same way, I feel that climate change will confront us with challenges we will might not be prepared for and when we have to collectively find a solution to move forward.

 

We braved the bike repairs and the rain and arrived happy at the social center in Bochum, where local activists welcomed us warmly with a wonderful dinner. We used the rest of the evening to put up the True Cost of Coal Banner and use it to spark an insightful conversation with our hosts and some visitors about the local culture and coal, politics and ways to go forward.

Day 11 Osnabrück – Münster

Today made me think about responsibility. After having picked up three new riders at Osnabrück train station, we were riding as a group of 10 people, the biggest group size we have had so far. When we were riding as a smaller group, many things required few organistion and we often could care for all the needs that individuals in our group have had. This was nice and the ride often felt like being on a holiday.

When we were riding in a group of 10 today, we had to pay much more attention on acting as one group. I remember one moment in the morning: I was riding in tha back of the group and my task was to make sure nobody was left behind. However, the trailer could not go very fast while a few people in the front were already far away. I got a bit angry: why did they not wait? They should take a look behing them from time to time and slow down if the group was falling apart! I stopped being angry when I realised that instead of finding someone to blame for the lack of cooperation and communication, I could change the situation: I could ride to the front and ask the others to slow down.

I am grateful for the opportunities to learn and to grow personally which open up to me in bigger groups. The opportunity to learn to reflect on my own needs and wishes having the whole group in mind: Do I need to do that now? Is it okay if the group has to wait for me then? Should I patien myself and wait for the next stop?

It feels so good to have taken care of others instead of acting egoistically. And it is such a nice experience to learn to trust the group, to become more relaxed concerning your own needs and more attentive concerning the needs of the others.

 

In the evening, we were received by the Fossil Free Group in Münster. Fossil Free invited us to join their mobilization event for Ende Gelände. We took a picture in the old harbour, with people swimming in the water while holding up a banner saying: “Uns steht das Wasser bis zum Hals – Ende Gelände!” The message was that we need to take action NOW and stop heating up our planet. Afterwards, we presented the banner “The true Cost of Coal” which was made by the Behive Collective. The banner tells many stories from the Appalach Mountains in the United States, explaining how coal mining has affected the region. It connects the local and the global level and shows how the problems of environmental destruction and climate change are caused by more than only coal mining: they are produced by the industrial machinery of a consumerist society that feeds itself from natural and human resources. This soiety is destroying the resources and turning them into trash. However, the banner also tells stories where diggers are stopped and nature is used in a sustainable way. It tells us that in order to make a change, we need both: resistance and regeneration. Ende Gelände is an act of resistance, while the climate camp is a place where people can learn how to create sustainable practices and structures. Our ride, too, has elements of both: we are against the use of fossil fuels while we practice and learn about alternatives.

Day 10 Goldenstedt – Osnabrück

The day started with a picture for and a brief discussion with the local newspaper in Vechta. Right after, we started cycling south. The morning went really smoothly; we crossed corn fields under the sunlight. After a refreshing swim at Dummersee, we had some lunch and continued the ride. The afternoon was a bit more challenging, with some hills and a short bit of unpaved road.

 

When we came to Osnabrück, we were warmly welcomed at the beautiful place where we are staying tonight. A community has grown up from what technically is a student accommodation. There are several houses where students live, surrounded by forests and even a little lake. The area is full of apple trees, hanging mats and cozy places to chill outside. They also have a garden with two small greenhouses where they grow vegetables. Here in Osnabrück, the first Cooperide already made a stop in 2015 and met some of the people that agreed to host us this time. They had prepared dinner and apple cake for us, and we ate together and had many interesting discussions. Some of them are also going to the Klimakamp and Ende Gelände and we are excited to meet them again.

 

Tomorrow we will continue our journey to Münster. After meeting the people in Osnabrück, we could feel that our final destination and Ende Gelände are getting closer.

Day 9 Bremen – Goldenstedt

Starting day 9, our most lovely hosts for the night had set up a breakfast that was well worth the epithet Great. With such a warm welcome it was with somewhat heavy hearts that we left the city of Bremen, but we felt at the same time very much bodily and mentally refreshed and ready to carry on!

In the morning we welcomed Hannah to the group. She quickly became part of Cooperide after the regular introductory ceremony.

 

At our first water break for the day, soon after leaving Bremen, we came across a facility with large plastic animals displayed in the front garden (see picture). Plastic triceratops, gorillas and penguins stared us down and reminded us that these very distinct set of species are in fact close to becoming part of the same category: extinct. It is important to realise that the changing of the climate due to anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases is linked to local struggles for survival of some of these species as habitats diminish or degrades with changing climatic conditions. It is also important to note that the emissions in turn are a by-product of a system that rapidly expands (grows) in space. This effectively diminishes the likelihood of undisturbed habitats for animals other than humans. In short, we think that climate justice should also be served to other species whom have (as many social groups) for so long been marginalised or outright maltreated. They too must be realised as parts of the ecological system that is life and as real and deserving actors in the continuation of the economy.

We managed to arrive at the Biolandhof in Goldenstedt in time before thunder struck (by which time we were happily snuggled up in our sleeping bags in one of the barns). Just before then we had had a very interesting conversation together with our host about ecological farming, biogas and more (see next blog post (probably)).

Day 8 Wistedt – Bremen

We started at a farm called Hermannshof at 9.15 drove along a track the river Wümme, through little villages and along fields.

We cycled as a smaller group of six people the atmosphere in the group was calm and harmonic.

We did quite a long distance (80km) but we didn´t feel like it was that long.

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In Bremen we squatted the Bremer Stadtmusikanten

Later we had a meeting with the local press and got a nice picture with all our banners.

In the evening, we were hosted by Heike, Alexandra und Diana three members of the local transition town initiative, we had a very nice discussion and a good meal in the evening.

Now we can start a new day with full of power physically and new motivation.