Chronicle of a Death Foretold
About 40km from the Hambach Forest, the fight against coal has been going on for decades.
Before taking my hand, Willi tells me to switch off the camera and close my eyes: “Trust me, it’s worth it. You can film it later.”
I do what he says, and while he guides me up the concrete steps I hear the humming of the heavy machinery growing louder and feel the shade of the oak trees thinning around me. I know exactly what is expecting me. It’s not the first time in my life that I am going to be standing on the edge of an open pit coal mine. It’s not even the first time in the last 24 hours. And yet, when he finally tells me to open my eyes, I’m not quite ready to stare into the abyss.
The Hambach surface mine expands for over 40 square kilometres and spirals 400 metres deep into the ground. On the horizon, several towers of smoke rise from the lignite power plants, and we can see the exact point where the forest ends; a deep, smoking cut in the heart of a 12,000-year-old forest.
He brings up the rest of the group and repeats variations of the same question over and over again: “It’s really something, isn’t it?”.
The destruction of the forest, old and irreplaceable as it is, is only one symptom of a much wider and complicated condition. The depletion of underground water resources, the carbon emissions, the annihilation of local communities and ecosystems, and the endangering of people’s mental and physical health, are some of the others.
Due to an outdated and rather generic German law — “from Adolf Hitler”, as Willi describes it — RWE has every right to buy anyone’s land and extract the lignite underneath it because energy production is considered the Common Good. For the same reason, both the extraction and the relocation of entire communities are subsidised by the German government. Willi himself had to leave his home and property under the pressure of RWE. And now he wants the rest to the country to know what’s been happening for decades. For Willi, and many other people afflicted by forced relocation, whether it has already occurred or about to, the protests at the Hambach Forest are a ray of hope. Thanks to the media attention and to the masses of people gathering to avoid the destruction of the forest and to rapidly spreading criticism towards the coal industry, they hope to make their voices heard.
This scenario might sound unacceptably unfair and out of context for Germany. In fact, it’s the most common pattern of our economic system, which values financial gains of few individuals above all, disregarding the economic, environmental and psychological damage that causes on the rest of the society. Economists call these phenomena externalities and pollution is the textbook example. We are used to seeing the world in a binary way: coloniser and colonised, developed and developing, rich and poor. And we often forget that the same dichotomies and injustices exist locally as well. The most vulnerable communities are always disproportionately affected by the negative effects of capitalism, and these rural villages in Western Germany are just another example.
Why here, why now
The first time I heard about Keyenberg was in late in June 2018, when I was attending the Climate Reality Leadership Training in Berlin. One of the speakers was Norbert Winzen, a soft-spoken 53-year-old who refuses to call himself an activist. He grew up and lived most of his life in that small village, just a few kilometres away from the Garzweiler surface mine, also owned by RWE.
His story sounded familiar because I had already heard it in 2010 in Singleton, New South Wales. I was an exchange student learning about Economics of Minerals and Energy Industries at the time, and I also learned about problems afflicting the people living in Singleton because of the air pollution. I learned that Australia was (and still is) almost entirely reliant on coal for its electricity production and that the Australian Government had declared that there weren’t any “alternative and economically viable clean energy resources” to replace coal. It was the beginning of what ultimately led me to become a climate advocate.
After the training in Berlin, once reconnected with the other Climate Reality Leaders from Hamburg, we quickly realised that we all wanted to do something about what was happening in Keyenberg. The coal exit commission is currently at work in Germany to define the timing and conditions of a complete transition of energy production away from coal. Other organisations like WWF and Greenpeace are trying to pressure the Government to take swift and bold decisions by running petitions among the citizens. This is the time to act. We contacted Norbert, other organisations and activists, and set a date. Within three months of first hearing of its existence, we were on our way to Keyenberg to make a video about its people. Our visit to the Hambach surface mine was the last stop of a two-day tour de force.
All that is left
Willi speaks quickly and matter-of-factly. Like many of the people we met during these two days, it’s clear that he held the same speech before. He urges us to follow him and listen as if we were middle schoolers on a field trip. He has very little time to impress and educate us about what’s going on here. He tries to focus on facts rather than emotions, but there is no doubt about how he feels: “What we’re doing here is bullshit”.
Lignite (or brown coal) has low heat content and high carbon concentration. This means that compared to other fossil fuels it produces less energy and more CO2 emissions. Because of its chemical composition, it’s extracted in surface mines and it’s difficult to transport, so most lignite power plants are located near the mines. The product-to-waste ratio is 1 to 6: for each extracted ton of lignite, 6 tonnes of ground become a byproduct of the excavation. This is why the mines are constantly expanding, threatening the surrounding ecosystems and communities.
According to a Greenpeace report from 2015, the quantifiable social cost of lignite is about 15 Billion Euros per year. This includes subsidies to the industry, rehabilitation of formerly mined areas, costs due to the relocation of inhabitants and water scarcity, and other externalities such as air pollution, which causes around 23,000 premature deaths every year in Europe. On top of that, there are non-quantifiable costs such as material and psychological burden of the relocation, and the loss of ecosystems, habitat, and water resources.
“That’s all that is left of the forest. It used to be huge, and now it’s gone”, Willi says while we leave our first vantage point, the public one, to sneak into RWE’s private lookout hidden among the trees. And adds: “but at least here it doesn’t feel like a wasteland just yet”. We walk past an old cart used to carry coal. I can’t help thinking that has been left there on purpose to impress the guests of the so-called RWE Lake House: “They use it for their private parties. They built it here because it’s unlikely that the excavation will reach this side of the forest”.
When we reach the next lookout, the surface mine is still buzzing with activity, but it doesn’t look like many people are working in it. I ask Willi if it looks so empty because it’s a Sunday, and he replies that the level of activity is always pretty much the same throughout the week. In fact, the same electricity produced by the power plants and used to move the machines, it’s cheaper on the weekends so RWE actually saves up on the extraction during that time.
“There are barely any people working in the mine anymore, most of the work is done by automated machines. These jobs that they tell you that are at risk if the mine closes down? Nobody needs them, they haven’t existed for years.”
According to a report from Agora Energiewende, Rhineland is the only area of Germany where the number of jobs in the lignite industry remained mostly stable in the last three decades. But is also the area where there were fewer jobs, to begin with: as of mid-2017 a little under 20,000 people worked in the German lignite industry, whereas the renewable energies were already employing 370,000 people in 2014. Norbert believes that preserving the jobs and the livelihoods of the RWE employes is extremely important, but bluntly adds: “I wish that my job was the only thing I had to worry about. Instead, my entire life is being turned upside down”.
Many times during the tour he gives us, Willi points out the absurdity of it all: “When we see all pieces of the Earth we need to move aside to reach the lignite. All the dirt that the power plants spew into the air. It doesn’t make sense anymore. It’s no longer viable”.
Rest in peace?
The early autumn sun sets on Keyenberg with colours straight out of a postcard. Even the white, not-so-distant smoke towers from the power plants turn a soft shade of pink. We were supposed to meet the only dairy farmer remaining in town, but Norbert tells us it won’t be easy to persuade him to be interviewed.
“He’s become extremely depressed and introverted since he started losing the land against RWE. His cows and his profession are all he has and it’s very difficult for him to talk about it”.
We decide to leave the man alone and follow Norbert to the graveyard instead. On our way there, we walk past several dried-out trees. “It’s because of the pumps”, says Norbert. To allow the extraction, water must be withdrawn from underneath the lignite deposits, which causes depletion of the underground water resources. Even if some of this water is then pumped back, the process causes iron clogging and acidification, which depletes the all over water quality.
Despite its nature, the cemetery at dusk is far from a gloomy, depressing place. The air is getting cold, that’s true, but the lawn is tidy and the tombstones are orderly and clean, the flowers are all fresh, everything is well taken care of. The feeling of the place is of tranquillity rather than grief, of love rather than despair. Norbert shows us the grave of his father, and tells us of how his mother takes care of it and many others. “He was originally from Königshoven, another town that was forcibly relocated by the expansion of Garzeweiler. Now he’s buried here, and will most likely need to relocate again”. Next to his father, is buried a childhood friend of his: “She died of Leukaemia at 22, I and five other friends carried her from the church to here. We grew up together.” For some reason, I focus on the dates. She was born the same year as my mother and died the year I was born.
The next day, in the solemn dining room of Kathy Winzen, Norbert’s mother, we learn more about what the resettlement means for the dead and their families. “I had my Willi cremated, so if I have to move him somewhere else his body won’t be in a bag”. Many bodies have already been exhumed and moved to other cemeteries. Norbert tells us that in Immerath, a ghost town nearby Keyenberg, all the graves are hollow. “You can see that they put the soil back in the holes, but the bodies are missing”. Other bodies, the bodies of those who no longer have relatives who can or want to take care of the exhumation, are left in the ground, waiting to be dug up and torn by the excavators.
And what about the living? Over 120,000 people have already been forcibly relocated and 1,500 more will likely suffer the same fate in the next few years. Relocation is not a simple nuisance: the identity, community, and families of these people are torn apart, and the psychological stress begins long before it’s time to move to the new town. Living in constant uncertainty takes a huge toll on mental health. Everyone we interviewed mentioned sleepless nights, loneliness, and the burden of defending themselves from RWE and its corporate lawyers while juggling their everyday lives. Norbert tells us that even those who decide to stop fighting and relocate, do it out of exasperation. “Every day we see the excavators getting closer, and we don’t know where they will dig next.”
“We are very sorry”
The torn bridge above the abandoned highway is a post-apocalyptic sight. Standing in front of it, Norbert tells us how he used to cross that bridge to go play football with his friends as a kid. “Until last week I could still do it, but now the bridge has been demolished. It’s another step toward the destruction of my home”. Only four weeks before the interview the highway was still open. One week earlier the bridge was still standing. The few remaining local businesses have been struggling with the unpredictability of the excavation.
Yvonne Kremer, the owner of the local horse riding school, told us how her clients now have a harder time to drive to her place, and it’s not her biggest problem. “Riding outside my property can be dangerous. We never know if we are going to find a new excavator or a new pump. The horses are sure-footed but I teach to children and I can’t take any risks with them”. For her, relocating would mean closing the riding school for good, giving away the horses, and taking up an office job that she doesn’t want. The professional training that she is attending, on top of her regular job, is being subsidised by the government. Without the support of her mother, who lives nearby, she would never be able to take care of everything. She is also having a hard time accepting that she will likely have to give up the life that she and her family built in Keyenberg. If the Government pays for her professional retraining, why can’t it pay for the retraining of the people working in the lignite mines? “The horses are part of the family, and I won’t be able to keep them. We are entitled to as much land as we have here in the new place, but RWE says that there isn’t enough space for everyone.”
Norbert and his extended family have a similar problem. The eleven of them share a big farmhouse and RWE took all the measurements and promised them a property of the same size in New Keyenberg. They had been ensured that they could rebuild their lives a few kilometres away but it’s just not possible. There isn’t enough space: “but the RWE lawyers and consultants are always so sorry about it”, says Norbert.
We are climate change
Norbert doesn’t consider himself an activist. He witnessed something that he couldn’t accept and decided to speak up and fight back. But not everyone has his same energy and determination. His own parents knew what was coming but Kathy could never bring herself to do anything about it.
“40 years ago I was sitting here with my husband, with someone from RWE across the table. He told us that in 40 years Keyenberg, like Königshoven, would also be relocated. Now the time has passed and they are here. I always knew that this was coming, but I never wanted to face it.”
When we ask him what gives him the strength to advocate and to constantly speak about what is arguably the most traumatic experience of his life, Norbert answers matter-of-factly.
“I have the privilege, although it’s a hard one to bear, to witness what happens on a global scale right here in my village. The lignite that is extracted from under my home contributes to carbon emissions, and only 40% is transformed into energy. We have three of the most polluting power plants in Europe right around the corner. We have so many alternatives now, and it’s no longer a matter of a few activists but an entire movement. Stop the Coal. And we are right here where’s it’s all happening. We are climate change.”
He’s determined, but not delusional. He understands that it might be too late to save Keyenberg but he knows that his fight is not for nothing: coal has to stop. It will inevitably stop. It doesn’t make sense anymore in the 21st century and his biggest hope is to turn his village, like the Hambach Forest, into a symbol. “Our only hope is mass. Media and mass.”
And he is right. About everything. What is coming to an inevitable end is not Keyenberg, nor the life as the Winzens’ and their neighbours know it. It’s coal. We know it, RWE knows it, the German government knows it. It’s only a matter of getting rid of it as quickly as possible to avoid further suffering and warming of our atmosphere. The global average temperature is currently a little over 1° warmer compared to pre-industrial times, and the effects are already devastatingly visible. The latest IPCC report has highlighted how marginal increases in temperature have exponentially catastrophic consequences. “We need to find a way to combine our comfortable lifestyles with sustainability, otherwise we won’t have the same privileges in the future. And we can all start doing something about it, right now.”
Think globally, act locally
After years of advocating, first on my own, and more recently with the support of a big organisation and a fantastic group of activists, I realised that the great majority of ordinary people aren’t climate deniers. They have no issues with accepting the scientific evidence of climate change, are aware of the consequences and in some cases have already witnessed them, at least to some degree. A few people don’t care, or choose a fatalistic we-are-all-going-to-die-when-the-sun-explodes-anyway approach. But most of them don’t take action, and that’s because they are not entirely sure about what they should do, and if their actions will have an impact on a global scale. And because they are not entirely aware of the bigger picture that I tried to paint here.
The first step to make a real difference as individuals at first, and eventually as a society, is to stop considering climate change as only an environmental issue. The pollution from human economic activities affects the climate, and the climate inevitably affects every aspect of our civilisation. We all need to accept that and empower ourselves to take responsibility for our own future.
Once we have done it, there are some practical things that we can do:
- Empower others to do the same by spreading the word.
- Sign petitions, support movements, go to demonstrations.
- Vote for politicians that support environmental policies.
- Switch your energy provider to one that uses only renewable energy sources.
- Get rid of single-use plastic, reuse, recycle.
- Travel consciously and offset your emissions whenever possible.
- Buy local and seasonal food.
Inside Keyenberg: Hope For Our Hometown is also on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLGH6afVOcwiAbITqsAr_Do26UcwulBfkf
Learn more about the Climate Reality Project and the Climate Leadership Corps: https://www.climaterealityproject.org/
Europe Beyond Coal: https://beyond-coal.eu/
Sustainable Development Goals (https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/)
Are you based in Hamburg? Then join Climate Hub Hamburg and our monthly Meetups: https://www.facebook.com/ClimateHubHamburg/
All photos are mine and not to be used for any purpose without permission.