The Picket Line between Heaven and Hell

The lignite mine and climate camp in Leipzig, high summer 2018

High summer 2018.

Heat waves haunted the entire world, causing wildfires around southern Europe and California.

Many conventional power plants also suffered from not having enough cooling water. Nuclear and hard coal power plants across Europe had to reduce power output or even shutdown during the most severe days.

In Taiwan, renewable energy skeptics launched their final reactionary offensive against the inevitable rise of wind and solar: an anti-energy transition referendum.

Though it was estimated that such reckless referendum would never pass nor even get enough petition before general election, its adverse effect on discussions of the new power system was not underestimated from us.

Amidst the chaotic situation worldwide, I attended the climate camp in Leipzig via the suggestion of a friend. I quickly realized that the experience inside the camp no longer only pointed to a future free of coal, but also the camp itself can be seen as an omen style politic of what kind of future mankind probably need.

In this article, I will try to recall both major and trivial events happened during the camp, and give the most genuine depiction of how I felt during those events.


1st August: The Arrival

I arrived at the camp at around two thirty in the afternoon. The exact location of the camp was at Pödelwitz, a small village near Leipzig which is currently threatened by the expansion of lignite mining nearby.

To reach the town, I took a S-Bahn to Neukieritzsch. From there, a local shuttle heads towards Pödelwitz about every hour.

I spent most of my first day scoutting around the area. There was this Neuer Geyersberg where one could get a full view of the surrounding area. The hill located on a recovered area where it used to be the center of the lignite mine. The original Geyersberg was destroyed during the mining operations in the 1970s.

I also filmed the blockadia and divestment episode of my Energy Transition Tour series during the day.

Afterall, where would be better to talk about blockades and fossil free movements than at the center of a climate camp? The iconic sceneries of the coal power plant Lippendorf lying beside wind turbines on Neuer Geyersberg also provided a strong and symbolic imagery.

Lignite power plant on the one side…
while wind turbines on the other.

The strong autonomous spirit of the camp quickly caught my attention as I entered the daily life of it. People could sign up for tasks such as toilet, trash, or kitchen services voluntarily whenever they like.

The dining logistics also impressed me a lot. All the food was vegan and from the local; all the tableware was reusable. There will always be people willing to take the place of cleaning and sorting of the plates and cups.

Soon I also discovered that there were only 27 residents remained in the village, and around 90% of the buildings and land were already brought by Mirbag, the mining company of the region which happened to be a branch of EPH. Everywhere there was this sign of “Private property! Do not enter!”, though many were grafittied during the camping period.

2nd August: The Workshops

On the second day of my stay, I went to the church of the town. The smokes from the coal power plant rose from the top of the church tower, an inconvenient reminder of the constant threat the town is facing.

I attended some of the workshops later the day. One invited local activists from Colombia to discuss the mining situation there. Hard coal mining has become one of the major environmental and social issue in the country, and most important for Germans, a lot of the hard coal mined in Colombia is exported to Germany.

In the workshop I first saw Felipe, who explained the mining situation and political relationship between Germany and Colombia very well.

In the afternoon, I participated in the toilet crew, or as one called it, the “shit brigade”. The toilets did not use tap water and large scale chemicals; they were basically some buckets under the seat. This raised the risk of epidemic infection within the camp, so regular cleaning of the toilet became necessary.

All parts of the toilet and the tap needed to be rinsed and disinfected thoroughly. To avoid any potential contamination, the toilet crews were not allowed to enter the kitchen for the next 72 hours.

Thanks to these precautionary measurements, there was no major breakouts during the camp. There were, however, some cases of diarrhea, which were given special toilets to prevent further spread of the disease.

During lunch I came across with Julian, a friend whom I met in Taiwan last summer. The last time we met, I was just about to head off to Germany. Since then we did attempt to meet other, but it never happened until we arrived came across each other again at the camp without knowing beforehand.

What a year it has been! I said to myself. Sadly Julian left that afternoon, so we didn’t have much time to talk into detail.

At night, in a panel discussion was held to discuss the local and global perspectives of environmental movements against coal. I was a little bit disappointed that they only invited one foreign speaker (the same lady from Colombia as in the morning), while the other three speakers were still German.

Furthermore, I was also disappointed that the German speakers talked for most of the time. I had the morning workshop, so it was not really a big deal for me. But it must have been somehow confusing for the others.

It was not me who felt the same way. Two girls sitting next to me discussed this situation during the discussion section to the public. We went to the Bürgerhaus for the Crepe stand after the discussion.

I was very surprised that one of them only studied in Germany for just a year, given how fluent their German were. Also, I was impressed by how they adapted into the leftist culture in Germany. Like how they joked about putting flyers in visitors bag during a hiwi job in natural museum, “hey, all those fossils were stolen from Africa!” or something like that.

3rd August: The Preparations

The summer school and workshops ended on the 2nd of August, and on the 3rd of August began the preparations for the action to come. The atmosphere in the camp quickly turned tensed. Helicopters began to patrol the skies above frequently, the lousy noises of its spinning propellers now roaming everywhere inside the camp.

A member from 350 asked me if she could interview me for her covering of the camp. We talked about how Taiwan is heavily impacted by stronger typhoons, more extreme rainfall events, and longer heatwaves. I also talked about the cooperations with 350 Taiwan I was involved in last year, from the divestment campaign of Taida to the East Asia Climate Leader Camp.

It was not a perfect interview, since this was probably the first time I had ever been on camera in English. I supposed I did send some important messages on how the transition process in Germany would impact the perception of people in Taiwan. If Germany could show the world a dual phase out from the two “baseload” technologies (i.e. nuke and coal) is possible, it would be more persuasive to push for similar transitions around the world. Or else we might face difficulties in doing so.

The interview also had me rethink my original motives and reasons why I continued to participate in the climate movement in the unconventional way.

To be honest, I am part of the Earth’s population who feel the least of climate change impact.

Typhoons and extreme rainfalls caused landslide in mountain regions and major floods in coastal regions, but my living sphere in Taiwan were never heavily devastated by these disasters. There were some inconvenience when the campus of Taida got flooded in summer, but that was all I had experienced actually.

It is always hard, then, to specify the motives of why I participate in environmental moments. Should I related to what I studied in university? But then why did I study environmental science? Maybe because it was the only science I excel at in high school? Does it also have to do with my earlier days of encountering social movements?

Then I remembered EACLC, and what burdens the campaigners were bearing in the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia alike.

Maybe the true answer was because of witnessing all those people, in a more vulnerable position to climate change and police violence, yet still managed to perform such heroic acts and sometimes gained success.

And maybe this gave me the sense of mutual support and global campaign eventually.

In the afternoon, we practiced some techniques to hold contingent discussions during blockade and ways to breakthrough the picket line of police. Some classic tactics were introduced and drilled during this process, like the two-pronged diversion and dilute and penetrate tactic.

At dinner, one of the co-participants during the afternoon drill sat with me. He told me how he was frustrated by the apolitical stances people usually have around him, as he himself began to realize that something was wrong with the system.

“They would always think that, what would happen would happen, and what wouldn’t happen just wouldn’t happen; so besides voting, all other political means are useless.”

“That sounds very much like classical economics,” I replied. “You got the supply and demand curve, and then the market decides everything.”

He said that he had never thought about the thing like that, but such connection was very insightful. “My father is a small businessman, so this actually can explain where my previous beliefs came from.”

We later on discussed shortly about the issues of energy democracy. “I mean”, I said, “even though wind and solar are good, you cannot just build them without the participation of local communities. Or else you will stir up more opposition.”

“That’s right, and now the anti-wind movement has binded strongly with conservatives or far right politics in Germany. For example, the AfD would blame those wind expansion to the nuclear phase out.”

Luckily, he said, that these movements were so far ill-connected with each other to provide a nationwide political atmosphere.

I told him the more unfortunate case of Taiwan, where an anti-energy transition referendum was taking place.

“It wouldn’t pass, but they keep telling the wrong concept of the necessity of baseload and thus they could promote their either nuclear or coal narrative. This will cause harm to the transition towards renewables in the future, because the discussion should no longer be around baseload but flexibility now.”

This was probably the first time I discussed energy politics in Taiwan thoroughly. Before, I had always assumed that it would be impossible to explain the complicated situation right now in Taiwan to a foreigner. It turned out not to be as difficult as I previously thought, and the reactions were quite good.

He told me that this was the kind of conversation that could change his entire life. I was flattered by such words, and that made my mood up throughout the night.

Otherwise, the atmosphere at night quickly turned densed. In the tent, my friend and I discussed about the action that would take place the next day.

She was quite nervous, since this was only the second mass action she had participated, and yet she was given a very important role during the blockade.(Which was, later to be revealed, to block the main entrance of the lignite power plant Lippendorf.)

“I got a total nerve breakdown a few hours ago when I was too late for the dinner. The dinner was not the main reason, but definitely the last straw that crush the camel.” She told me. “So much burden now lie on me, and yet my previous action experience was a total failure.”

Last summer, when the Kohle Ersetzen team was still a minor team in the entire Ende Gelände action, her team was followed closely by the police as soon as they moved out. Ultimately they were entirely surrounded, and the blockade mission failed.

Back then the team’s action was just a sidenote in the larger Ende Gelände action. This year was very different. This year, they represented the only activists in Lusatia, and the eyes of the world laid upon them.

“Well, this would also be the second time I participate in a mass action with potential consequences.” I said, thinking of the occupations of the legislative and executive Yuan in the spring uprising of 2014.

But then there were also these not so violent or significant actions I participated, like the anti-nuclear demonstration in March 2013, the demonstration against interior abuse in military in July 2013, the camp at the evicted houses in Miaoli in August 2013…

Indeed, controversial topics had never really died out in Taiwan, but after the most bloodiest night in modern Taiwan history, something had definitely changed inside me.

Only years later did I begin to realize, since then I had always been avoiding another scenario that would put me under direct assault from the police.

The night went on with the dense uncertainty we were about to face.

4th August: The Actions

Action day.

The support group was sent out to three points on the outskirts of the lignite power plant Lippendorf. I was with the group that stationed at Neukieritzsch.

Felipe was also with us. We had some short chats in the beginning of the stationing. I learnt that he actually was now a co-worker now with Christ, a former member of Fossil Free Freiburg working on a coal exit project in TU Berlin. Their work was to study the coal phase out policies of four developing nations, namely China, India, Colombia, and South Africa.

Felipe went to Taiwan before, since his girlfriend was an exchange student there before. He asked me the overall energy situation and policy in Taiwan.

“We get coal from Indonesia and Australia, and uranium from Australia.” I said. “So I felt resonated when you were talking about the export situation between Colombia and Germany, because we are actually doing the same thing to indigenous people in Australia.”

Around 1000, action participants began to flock to our post. As they left, action support became a very relax job. From time to time we get the latest updates via twitter or people returning from the three fronts. The entire action seemed to have gone unbelievable smooth, with only some arrests and one line got pepper sprayed.

Sometime passed noon, a girl, Jullia, arrived to the camp and by chance, to our post. When she learnt that I studied renewable energy, she asked me about my opinion of whether 100% renewable would be feasible.

“Currently around two-thirds of energy experts would say yes, and currently there is a trend that more are leaning toward this stance.”

About two thirds of energy experts now believe 100% RE is possible

But what about the stability issues? The inertia issues? And how to deal with the predictable variability of solar and wind? Jullia asked me.

Frankly speaking, I did not expect to have such intense conversation in such occasion. So I think my explanations were somehow unorganized and messy.

Still, I liked the analogy I came up during the discussion, that “energy transition is like climbing a mountain; there are important obstacles, but in the end you can still manage to get to the peak.” I also repeated the vivid analogy of the conventional power system as a large old truck and a new power system as many bicycles binding together.

“I don’t think the real debate lies in the technical feasibility of a 100% renewable energy system; rather, it is the economic viability and social-political conditions that people are debating.”

Jullia told me that she was now working on an European Union initiative that attempted to boost municipal mitigation policies. One of the case she worked before involved buying back the grid from private company. Currently she is working on cooperation with example cities outside Germany, such as in Poland and Greece.

It was really important, in her opinion, to have civil participation in energy transition initiatives. Therefore, she showed interest in participating the workshops next year, since she believed that her work has earned her some value experience on this subject.

Meanwhile, many locals came to our post. Most of them showed great support for our causes; some even brought us drinks and popsicles.

However, there were also some who came to challenge us. They feared a phase out of coal mining would cause a total collapse of the economy in this region. One gave the fiercest attitude and shouted directly towards us.

The job argument is actually losing its merit even in Rhineland and Lusatia. Source

As we sat down and discussed the general mindsets of the opposition from the local community, many pointed out the sense of a lost society.

“I mean, back in the DDR, the society was more connected, and the atmosphere in these towns were actually very ideal. But then they never really recover from the collapse, and I sometimes feel very sad for them, even when they have those conservative thoughts on immigrants and coal mining.” One said.

Besides that, I think we had a good time and engagement with the locals in general. One of them even invited us to have some dinner at his house later.

Some decided to go there, while I joined up a small demonstration around the town. It was supposed to be a deceptive move to confuse the police where and when the true action actually take place, but we decided to make it a real thing, since, why not?

The small demonstration quickly turned into a joyful walk around the fields. We would stop at a pear tree or a berry bush to have a small snack from time to time. The police patiently followed us during the three hour walk.

Most people we met around the route tried very hard to ignore us. Still, when we were about to leave the town and go on the highway, a farmer asked us to stop.

“I would like to talk to you. I am indecisive about how to judge your actions. On the one hand, I did witness what destruction coal mining had made to our region; on the other hand, I see no alternatives out of that.”

He then invited us to his barn for a longer conversation. We followed him, while the police stopped outside of his properties.

The farmer was a very conservative person. He hated the communists, but he also hated Merkel (who, he said, would probably fled to her secret place in Los Vegas should things go wrong here). He was very proud of his “German” way of life, and the immigrants coming in were destroying this way of life.

However, we did have the mutual acknowledgement that coal mining, in a sense, was also destroying the “German tradition”. He told us that a few years ago there was a town originated in the 13th century that was destroyed due to the expansion of lignite mining.

“Do you know that there is lignite also beneath the ground of Leipzig? Were the communists still in charge, they would probably destroy Leipzig also.”

In the end, he expressed an understanding of our cause. “I do think what you are doing is inherently good, but do not make it a violent action.”

Before we went on to our route, he gave us an useful advice about future actions. He suggested that we could set up memorials and rituals for the towns destroyed because of the mining industry. It would be an iconic image, say, to build a graveyard of old villages, all “died” because of coal mining.

On the highway to Borna, the group discussed further what we had just talked with the farmer.

“There is a strong pride over the German culture and land in the conservative narratives. It somehow coincides with some of the conservation causes from environmentalists. This is an opportunity, yet is also full of risk.” I said, thinking of the Green Tea coalition in the US and current cooperation between governing KMT cabinets and environmentalists in New Taipei city.

“Well, there was an enrooted ecological viewpoint in the Nazi ideology, though it was mainly used to serve for nationalist and racism cause.” said Jullia.

“When he was talking about how immigrants were causing all the social problems, I told him that my grandmother came from Kaliningrad and had suffered similar losses during their flee. The images of crowded ships and desperate refugees came on the news really reminded her much of her childhood memories.”

The highway was full of fruits and berries on the side. I later learnt that this was actually part of the DDR policy: to grow consumable plants along the public area, such that every citizen can drop by and enjoy them for free.

After a six kilometer walk, the town of Borna finally reached sight. There was also a panorama view of the open pit mine there. Just like the Neuer Geyersberg and the lake, the mining company Mirbag also made this alien landscape a kind of tourist site, with tour guide signs around.

We waved goodbye to the police escorting us and took a S Bahn back to Neukieritzsch. There we joined the rest of the action support team and set back to our camp.

At about 2000, most of the action participants have returned back to the camp. For most, it was a pleasure experience.

One participants told me how he was surprised by the shift penetration through the police and how they were actually neglected in the latter stage of the action. Those who were pepper sprayed also reported how illy experienced the police were, such that the pepper spray backfired and one of them got it all over his face.

There were, however, still about a dozen of people who were held custody during that time. The last one would be released at around 2200.

The mood of the night was a total oposite of the previous one. People talked much about what happened during the day everywhere. Photos and films were also shared at the main tent.

At dinner I talked to a philosophy post grad studying in France. It turned out he was a friend of Julian, and before Julian left they talked about the Taiwanese who was in the camp (which was, of course, me).

We discussed what he was studying, namely, contemporary philosophy of Rancière, Agamben, Deleuze, and all that kind of stuff. I really had to refresh my old school memories of these people’s thoughts, but he did give us a very understandable picture of how polities and political were differentiated in most of the contemporary discussion.

We then discussed about China. I told him that, from an environmentalist’s viewpoint, China was now a exciting yet dangerous place.

“On one hand you have around 100,000 mass grassroot movement a year against high risk power plants, factories, and air pollution; on the other hand, the government has been restricting the civil society in recent years. One Taiwanese environmentalist actually got arrested and sentenced to jail for aiding the local network in China.”

But I said China was also the very place to test his philosophy; because no institutional democracy existed yet, the strong grassroot movements in China were actually showing another possible dimension of what could become political.

In a sense, the Chinese are teaching us democracy in two ways: the first is how we should cherish our own ones, the second is how people could organize and mobilize, even with an authoritarian state that controls and monitors almost every part of its citizens’ daily life.
I think this is what I also think of the environment movements in Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

Later in the night there was the party that last until two in the morning. Sadly I felt a little bit dizzy and could not join it for long. I was quite depressed and decided to go to bed early that day.

5th August: The Partings

On Sunday morning, people began to pack up and leave the camp. The tents and constructions were also beginning to be torn down. The atmosphere changed quickly again into somehow bitterness with frequent partings.

In the afternoon I happened to meet Jullia again. It was quite a surprise; I assumed she had already left the camp since I did not meet her in the morning, when in fact she did not wake up until noon.

That was when my friend, paying research visit in Garmisch, called me and asked which places I would like to visit there in the next few days when I met him.

Since Jullia came from a nearby village in that region, she gave me some hiking advice around Walchensee.
(I would later find out that the trial she recommended for me was a little bit challenging; 15 kilometers in total and two peaks to climb. Still, the view on two sides worthed such effort.)

The hiking route recommended by Jullia
The ridge between Heimgarten and Herzogstand. It was really a nice place to visit.

We then talked more about the region where she grew up. For her, the 2015 G7 summit in Garmisch was one of the event that made her started to question the fundamental premises of modern democracy.

During the summit, the sightseeing area was blockaded entirely by the police, and all the roads to the mountains were also closed. Even the locals would have a very hard time trying to commute in the region. Even the sewer system from Munich to Garmisch was blocked!

The people of Garmisch had never encountered any kinds of demonstrations, so rumors of crazy radicals that would loot the streets made them to seal their windows with wooden boards.

For people who never knew a thing about demonstration, we concluded, that this was total normal reaction. Just like how some locals were trying to stay away from us but still could not hide their curiosity in their eyes during our action, the first steps of engagement and understanding was always the hardest.

We later went to the lake nearby the town. Like Neuer Geyersberg, it was also in the recovered land from previous coal mining activities, so I was actually not sure about the water quality and pollution inside the lake and had been avoiding getting into it.

But it was really a hot day then, and I decided to dive in for this very once. This was the second time I go naked and jumped into a lake in Germany, and I was still trying to get used to this culture. Still, the water was very cool and relaxing, so I gradually begin to know why people here love to do things like this.

Jullia had work on Monday and had to go back to Berlin, so shortly after the swim in the lake, we part with each other.

I then went to the IT tent later for recharging my cell phone and, finally, met Ronny, the person who maintain the solar panels and power control systems in the camp.

The inverter and the batteries for power control.
The solar capacity in the camp was around 4kW.
The camp ran without coal power under normal conditions (backup power would be provided from the Burgerhaus if necessary).

According to him, he was trying to automize important control procedures with arduino and build a genuine autarky system currently. I was fascinated by the idea to get all the theories I learnt into practice, and offered help for this development for the next camp.

To me, the devices were all very familiar yet also alien. I seemed to know everything but also I didn’t really know anything. That was the frustration I had in the academic environment I have been very used to.

That was why I was very impressed and inspired by Ronny. He did not have any degree in related fields, but he taught himself all the power system knowledge necessary. Also, he did not learn English at school, but he still learnt to speak it during his tour in northern Europe as a radio operator.

Later on, I met the exhausted yet satisfied organizing team of the camp. Invited by my friend, we went to the lake and later for the crepes together. “Finally we have some fun.” One of the team member said as he dived into the water.

The night sky that day was crystal clear that day. While grazing upon the stars, we talked about what the future of Pödelwitz and the camp.

Some politicians told the team that after this mass action, Pödelwitz was probably saved because it had finally been caught onto nationwide politics; but my friend and others did not keep such optimistic view. On the other hand, from what I and many participants observed, another climate camp in the region next summer might rally and organize more local support. I did think that there was high possibility that the local might be organized better after this action.

As most of the people had left the camp, it was now vulnerable to attempts of attacks by local oppositions and neonazis.

Far right ideology was no taboo in this region. Those who attended the dinner invited by the locals the day before told me that they saw graffitis of nazi symbols and slogans mocking left wing ideology inside the garten. Some protestors also encountered people who did the “Sieg Heil!” salute to them.

There were some suspicious cars patrolling around the camp, so we were told not to walk alone the roads. Luckily, the night ended without troubles from the neonazis.

6th August: The Departure

The last day of my stay was also full of dismantling work, though much faster than the organizing team expected, most of the work was already done the day before.

I helped putting packs of bottles back to the truck throughout the morning. At noon, I teamed up with two other people to take the shuttle bus back to Neukieritzsch. Tim was a local from Leipzig and was currently working in Köln. Emma was from France. They both went to the lignite mines of Rhineland before.

“This is really astounding, but what we got in Rhineland is much bigger; they said the coal mine there is as big as the city Köln itself.” said Tim.

On the S Bahn back to Leipzig, we discussed about the impressions they had about the action in general.

Since both of them joined the Ende Gelände before, they felt that the action was comparably ineffective. The action only blocked the main entrance of the coal power plant, so it did not actually cripple the power production chain.

In fact, there was no significant change in the behavior of power output of the plant that day. On the other hand, Ende Gelände actions would have strike directly on the transportation of the lignite, causing real damage to power production. This partially explained the lighter police violence during the action.

Power output didn’t change significantly for Lippendorf on 4th of August.
The kind of blockade Ende Gelaende does would have been more effective (but facing more police violence) Source
Though the cause of the effective drop of Schwarze Pumpe may also be due to a surge of wind generation

The other thing they observed was how long and ineffective the contingency discussions took during in situ situations. “In our affinity group we were wondering what would become of the police,” said Emma, “should they use the same discussion procedure like we did.”

“Maybe today one would say he needs some rest, and the other would say she didn’t feel like hurting the crowd today.”

“If the police act the way like we did, why would we need to confront them in the first place?” Tim asked.

But the world is not ruled by people who value horizontal democracy and environment highly.

As we left the camp, the real daily struggle stroke back to us again. What we can only hope is that, we will always keep the spirit we obtained during the camp, and continue to fight for the transition we wish for.

That is, before the next time we met, at Hambacher Forst, at COP 24, at Shenao, at the tar sand fields of Canada, at the hard coal mines of Colombia, or anywhere else around the world where the same story unfolds. Then we shall be at the picket line between heaven and hell again, feeling the bizarre but yet inspiring atmosphere once more.

And so I parted with the two people I just met at Leipzig train station, and headed towards Garmisch for my friend.


Afterthoughts

The climate camp and the mass action against lignite mining and coal power plant Lippendorf in early August came at the very right moment. In Germany, Lusatia and Sachseb were hit most severely by the heat wave then. The sunshine in the first five days was constantly strong, and perhaps only on the last night did it start to cool down. Most Germans now acknowledge that this is a sign of climate change; we can only hope that such acknowledgement can inspire the coal commission.

This was the very first time I had a chance to see an open mit coal mine in such a close distance. The shear size and destruction the industry has made was beyond doubt, and it should deepen anyone’s doubt about this kind of industry.

This was also the very first time I joined a climate camp in Europe. The autonomous atmosphere and altruism acts inside the camp opened my eyes of how things could be done and how people could interact with each other.

I am now convinced that it is through these kinds of putting theory in practice that the promises of the energy transition could be fulfilled, the promises of a cleaner and more democratic future. Pödelwitz must stay, and it will be where the real transition for Germany begins.

Finished on 10 Aug. 2018, at Vauban, Freiburg