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Germany: A few thoughts on the situation around #HambacherForest

Hambacher Forest. Germany. Briefly after the news reached us that the German government has imposed a new coal legislation, a press statement was released on this blog. This text, written by a single person, is meant as an addition to the press release in commenting upon the current situation. It is also meant as an open invitation for more people who have been involved in the Hambacher Wald occupation or the resistance against coal mining generally to express their thoughts, for the sake of pluralism.

Originally published by Hambi Bleibt.

The news that the government has finally decided that what remains of Hambacher Wald must not be cut down for lignite extraction has been received in several media as a victory for the ‘climate activists’. The reaction from our side has largely been that it is not a victory; the reasons being that the diggers have approached way too close to the edge for it to be stable, that the pumps are still draining the groundwater and thus drying out the forest, that no statement in the media can suffice for us to trust the treacherous state and RWE – in other words: that there is still no guarantee that the forest is actually saved – and lastly that this announcement is to be interpreted as a harbinger of eviction, as part of a cunning political strategy to neutralize a subversive project that had long become too bothersome to be simply ignored but also too popular to be crushed by sheer force without risking political suicide. Moreover, the other deals incorporated in the law, including the destruction of the Garzweiler villages and the opening of Datteln 4 blood coal power plant are even to the standards of the Coal Commission highly problematic. The concession of Hambacher Wald is meant to distract attention from the general outline of Germany’s destructive coal policy for the next two decades, a period in which we are bound to slip into cataclysmic climate change.

A pyrrhic victory

So we find ourselves in a situation in which our opponents have announced our victory and are trying to appropriate it to their benefit. In times of accelerating ecological destruction, those trying to resist the unyielding forces of industrial capitalism have never had much ground for celebration, and it has always been clear that here, too, in the struggle for Hambacher Wald, nothing more was to be expected to come out than a pyrrhic victory – ‘one more such victory and we will be undone’.
Of the once extensive Bürgerwald – not to mention the primordial forest it used to be part of – only a mere fraction is left, global greenhouse gas emissions are still skyrocketing as governments continue to fail to live up to their commitments (if they have any commitments at all), deforestation continues unabated, ever more wildfires consume vast tracts of woodland and tundra, the insect dieback shows no sign of recovery while ecosystems and weather patterns are swinging out of equilibrium globally – to name only a few significant developments that have progressed since Hambacher Wald was first occupied in 2012. Others obviously are: Germany is still nowhere near an end to coal combustion and will continue to subsidize this murderous industry while new police laws accompany the ongoing shift to the right and Frontex’ budgets increase annually along with the Turkish state getting financial and military support to keep refugees at bay and invade and cleanse (northern) Rojava. The persistence of the German government-coal industry coalition in subsidizing coal combustion as we descend into climate chaos has long seized to be a case of irresponsible policy; if we are to heed scientific evidence at all, it is better qualified as premeditated mass extermination (auf Deutsch: Massenvernichtung).

Such are the times we live in. Some have called the new legislation a farce, or view it as a shocking excess. Yet this is business as usual, a perfectly normal course of events under the conditions of global capitalism. Too much contestation and resistance in one place leads to externalization to another, preferably well out of sight. What did we expect? That Merkel and Laschet would admit that they had erred, and instead close down all of RWE’s power plants along with Germany’s many arms and automobile factories and reinvest tax money in reforestation and regenerative agriculture instead? Germany is one of global capitalism’s core regions. What is to be expected from its CDU ruling class but to sign with their gory hands one Turkish arms deal after another coal subsidies legislation whilst currying the favour of their senile electorate with gentle words of conciliation, charity and security? The Orwellian phrasing, calling this neoliberal coal subsidizing legislation (including the legally non-obligatory 2.4 or so billion euro tax money ‘compensation’ for RWE’s projected ‘loss’ of private profit) a coal exit legislation, suggests that the CDU demagogues hold the German population for a bunch of naïve idiots (or that the German population doesn’t mind being told bullshit as long as such things as Bangladeshi textile, South American McDonalds burgers, Congolese cobalt, Chinese electronics and Columbian blood coal cost as little as they do).

A propos reparations: now that this struggle is allegedly over and the squatters have retrospectively been found justified after all in claiming that this forest must remain – even Schmitz exclaims that we have ‘no more reason’ to be in the forest, implying that all the while we did – we still haven’t seen a single cent for the destruction of our houses and the physical and psychic violence perpetrated against us. And neither do we expect to.

Some partial achievements

Equally unreasonable as expecting anything else from the German government would it have been to expect that we ourselves were going to call a halt to industrial capitalism’s rapacious progress with a few tree houses here and the odd ‘bonfire’ there. Yet, detached from unrealistic expectations, one can also look back already upon unexpected achievements. For a pyrrhic victory is still a victory. A couple of years ago, when cutting seasons were still associated with the clear-felling of 70-80 hectares, the common assumption was that the remnants of Hambacher Wald would eventually follow the previous ninety percent of the lily-of-the-valley-hornbeam-oak forest into oblivion. For many the objective was, rather than to prevent that from happening altogether, not to allow it to happen unchallenged and unnoticed, and to make RWE pay for their operations. The fact that since 2017 no felling has taken place is therefore an important achievement. Beyond safeguarding the trees still standing, the significance of what has happened around this neck of the woods lies within the propagation of a spirit of defiance as an epoch of climate chaos and growing authoritarianism is dawning. As capitalism overstretches its ecological constraints and people grow increasingly conscious of the self-destructiveness of our current course, more cracks are to be expected. Let them burst and then bloom.

And, yes, this project may have cost RWE millions. But, again, let us not be naïve: we have never come close to bringing about the downfall of RWE and over the years the state has shown no hesitation in squandering billions of tax money on this inefficient Moloch. [1] The plunder and the externalization of costs will continue. And sure enough one day RWE will go bankrupt, as capitalist enterprises do, and whichever costs are still running – for example: how on earth to deal with this immense crater full of radioactive heavy metals?! – will be externalized to the public. But not before the likes of Rolf Martin Schmitz, Gregor Golland [2] and BlackRock investors scattered around the world have filled their pockets and left a mess behind, their wealth ready to be invested in the next ecocidal enterprise. This struggle has never been only about one forest, nor has it been only about one mining company.

More important than the financial losses to RWE that are generously covered by the neoliberal state are the blows dealt to their carefully constructed PR apparatus, and that of coal mining and other destructive industries generally. To those not blinded by unconditional allegiance to the sponsor of their local football club the greenwashed façade has been ripped apart. And the many blows dealt by police fists have perhaps begun to uncover the more honest face of that institution to an increasing amount of people too. Today it is as important as ever to emphasize the nature of the Hambach mine as a symptom of a sick global system of human social organization beyond it being a single issue to campaign against. While we may gaze with a sense of satisfaction upon the woodpeckers, squirrels and nuthatches of Hambacher Wald, our thoughts cannot but wander to the dispossessed Shor people of the Kuznetsk Basin, the tortured and murdered opponents of coal mining in Columbia and the immense swathes of woodland set ablaze in Australia, the size of which makes Hambacher Wald shrink to little more than a tiny grove.

In regard to looking beyond our own backyard and acknowledging the systemic nature of the problem, it might be added that the semblance of a democratic process leading up to a ‘reasonable compromise’ was propped up by the media circus of the Coal Commission in which supposed coal opponents were all too eager to participate, proudly shining alongside other men and women of importance in what can only be called a painful case of voluntary abuse. How to move towards a resistance that appeals to large parts of the population and goes beyond merely pushing problems away and eventually selling out to grey men in suit and tie known as Schreibtischtäter?

Pathways to liberty

Another point worth mentioning is how the Hambacher Wald project has opened up pathways to comparative liberty for those who prefer existing in defiance of the regime and enabling themselves to engage in non-alienated work above selling one’s freedom and labour to the regime – or to be sand in the cogs of the machinery rather than being a cog oneself (this need not amount to rejecting society altogether, it means rejecting bourgeois society’s central project). For we live not only in the shadows of an ominous future but also in the light of the present’s spring, and the pursuit of liberty knows no temporal boundaries. In Hambacher Wald a constant social experiment takes place on how people (mainly young Europeans born in the neoliberal era) combine (or fail to combine) freedom with responsibility. It offers the possibility of putting principles of mutual aid into practice in the margins of a world order dominated by unforgiving competition, exploitation and alienation.

And now?

So how does this continue? As mentioned earlier, the decision to spare Hambacher Wald can be understood as a first step in a renewed media campaign to delegitimize the habitation of the forest and all it stands for. Since at the latest September 2018 NRWE had been losing this campaign as it became too apparent even for mainstream media to ignore that the invasive violence came not from some maniacal eco-terrorists but from RWE, government and police. The timing of the massive police operation was ill-starred, moving into the Indian summer after an unsettling drought. Many people were moved to support the occupation by their concern for the climate and the trees. Soon the forest was re-occupied, reemerging like a hydra with heads multiplied, and the state did not chance another eviction resulting in public indignation. So they decided to let the storm pass and contemplate more insidious ways of undoing the highly annoying ‘tumor’ called Hambi. Now they are trying to pacify the public discontent by presenting themselves as accommodating and compromising, giving a symbolic concession with as little content as possible, all packed in Orwellian doublespeak. The aim is clear: the population must be lead to believe that CDU takes the climate problem serious, that there will soon be an end to coal without causing any disruptions to ‘the economy’, and that Hambacher Wald has been saved by a brave and thorough political decision which takes away all legitimacy for further habitation of the forest.

Statecraft has long known the tried and tested method of divide and conquer, and in a case not too dissimilar from Hambacher Wald, the autonomous ZAD de Notre-Dame-des-Landes in France, its efficacy has been demonstrated once more in 2018. The announcement that the contested airport would not be build was soon followed by the announcement that the squatters would be dealt with. An immense police operation ensued as state officials put pressure on former allies to distance themselves from the illegal occupation and allow for a return to ‘normality’. The tragedy of the last months of the ZAD as autonomous zone was not so much the military invasion itself – this lies beyond our control – as the state’s success at squeezing the solidarity and potency out of this ‘tumor’ that had become a strong symbol with potential for growth beyond the contested zone itself. There is no such thing as a single practical lesson to be learnt from the experience of the ZAD that now has to be translated to the context of Hambacher Wald, but let us be aware that the step taken by the German government is bound to have consequent steps ahead, and that there are multiple ways of dealing with this changing reality which in turn will have diverging consequences. If Hambacher Wald eventually turns out to be definitively relieved from cutting – if ever one can get a credible guarantee from a gang of liars and manipulators – the question will be how best to further protect and restore its health and ecology, and carry out the values that inspired its occupation.

Whatever happens in this old forest between Rhine and Rur, let us be like the rhizomes of stinging nettles, sometimes lying dormant when rest is needed, but emerging and re-emerging where the gardeners of ecocidal capitalist domination don’t want us.

[1] As Brock and Dunlap write in their highly recommendable ‘Normalising corporate counterinsurgency: Engineering consent, managing resistance and greening destruction around the Hambach coal mine and beyond‘: “Yet the claim that RWE’s operations benefit the public coffers disregards the German environmental ministry’s findings that roughly one billion euro/year subsidies are provided to lignite power production, in addition to the financial burden of environmental and health detriments of at least 3.5 billion euro/year.”

[2] Again Brock and Dunlap: “[…] the NRW police force is controlled by the state’s parliamentary Interior Committee. One of its most active members is Gregor Golland, an MP doubling as RWE employee with an annual corporate salary of up to €120,000 – only slightly less than his government salary of €128.712.”


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