Friday, June 29, 2012

Appalachian coal, meet European coal!

Germany's largest open pit coal mine in the Hambach Forest; that white dot by the digger machine is a monster pickup truck.
We just got back from a whirlwind 3-week tour in Europe, taking the True Cost of Coal for the first time to Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands. Whew! So interesting to see how this story plays out in another part of the world so connected to the coal economy.

We started our trip at the Manifesta Biennial in Genk, Belgium, a green, historic coal mining region where the only hills are grassy slag heaps from the mines. The art show is in a giant abandoned building that used to house administration, equipment and locker/shower facilities for 4200 miners. Although we saw two coal-fired power plants on the horizon, over the last 40 years all the mines in the region have been shutting down. We were told, "It's cheaper to buy coal from China."

"The True Cost of Coal" at Manifesta 9 in the closed André Dumont mine, Genk, Belgium
We asked some locals why the town didn't seem economically depressed despite losing such a major industry. Compared to coal towns in Appalachia, Scotland and Wales, this region of Belgium looks quite prosperous, busy with tourists and new construction. The old coal towns look like pretty rowhouses next to bike paths and polished cars. They told us that the coal companies needed to attract so many workers to the mines that the workers had a fair amount of bargaining power (people came from 30+ countries and stayed!) Also, compared to the U.S., the Belgian government strictly regulated the industry, and required companies to invest a good percentage of their profits into a fund to pay for transition costs after the mines closed down. So, another old mine nearby has just re-opened to house a sort of high-art "discovery center" of deep mining along with an art college, a cinema multiplex and a cafe.
Light installation in old miners' transport tunnels
Our heads reeling from Belgium's surreal post-mining economy, we next met up with our German tour collaborators: climate organizers who are also occupying the Hambach Forest to keep it from being eaten by Germany's largest open pit coal mine. We squeezed into a microscopic hatchback and headed straight to Zurich, Switzerland, where activists were occupying a park in the town center for a week-long, unpermitted Climate Camp.

Climate Camp in downtown Zurich
They just showed up with big trucks and started building meeting structures, a four-stall composting toilet, a wood-stove kitchen, and a solar-powered sound and lighting system, and the authorities seemed to be leaving them alone. We did a night-time storytelling by solar LED spotlight, then our German friends did a slideshow about the forest occupation and German climate organizing.

(More photos of Belgium and Zurich)

After Zurich we went to Freiburg and then did a number of events in the Cologne area near the Hambach Forest, as well as in the protest camp itself. The camp is a ten-minute walk from the edge of the mine pit, in an area scheduled for destruction within the year. To see the mine, you walk through a lovely, shady, relatively diverse forest full of singing birds, bees, dragonflies etc. Then you hit the clearcut and it's suddenly sunny and you're picking your way across an obstacle course of dead brush and trees. Then a little further on you hit big ridges of loose dirt. After climbing and sliding down a few of those you're looking over the edge down at skycraper-sized machines, sand, and a layer of thick coal, 300 meters down the hole. When they're finished digging, they promise, they'll turn it into Germany's largest lake.

An old treestump in Hambach Forest
Lilies in a forest wetland

Clearcut at the mine's edge; coal-fired power plant in the distance
Three of the many diggers in the mine pit
The Hambach Forest isn't exactly old growth wilderness, but people drive from far away to walk their dogs and children there because it's the closest thing to "wild" in a densely-populated country whose forests mostly seem to consist of sterile-looking, monoculture pine plantations. They stop by the camp kitchen. They chat. They check out the hanging platforms and defense systems. Some sneer. Some bring water and food.

At the camp storytelling, and in the closest town, it was inspiring to be sitting in a big circle with scruffy direct-action squatters in earnest conversation with longtime locals who are concerned they'll be displaced as the mine continues to expand. (They took the parachuter scene as a starting point! Hurrah!)

Next we headed to East Germany to visit Leipzig and Cottbus, another old coal-mining region, then Berlin and Hamburg, then Amsterdam and Utrecht in the Netherlands and DONE!
(More pictures) (And yet more pictures)

How did it compare to touring in the U.S.? 

Unlike in the U.S., even energy companies admit climate change is happening, and that human industry is responsible. The Industrial Revolution is relatively recent and familiar history. (Theft of indigenous lands for resource extraction, on the other hand, is something that happened Over There.) In the countries we visited, coal mining happens in densely-populated areas in plain view, so companies have to work harder to convince people it's a good thing. But the tools of economic coercion and government complicity work there as well as here.

Our attempts to draw "solutions" in the far right of the poster are somewhat simplistic compared to the efforts already underway in some European countries--wind power cooperatives, for example. Utrecht, we're told, is constructing an underground parking garage next to its central train station, designed to hold 20,000 bikes. Amsterdam seems to have more bicycles than people. On the other hand, the Netherlands still gets a big chunk of its electricity from coal, and the gigantic port at the Hook of Holland is a major coal terminal for the rest of Europe.

Double decker bike parking in Utrecht, Netherlands
Our European audiences had a complex understanding of climate change, energy issues and greenwashing schemes, reflecting Europe's longer investment and experience in alternative energy and market-based solutions, their successes and failures. But, just like in the U.S., energy consumption keeps going up, and so do carbon emissions. Although wind turbines decorate the landscape, companies are scheming to build still more coal plants under the shelter of "clean coal" rhetoric. In Germany, people are organizing not only to shut down mine expansion, but also the greenwashing threat of Carbon Capture and Storage and experimental plans to store huge quantitites of CO2 under their villages, fields and towns.

Speaking of, help spread the word! This summer, we know of three Climate Camps in Europe-- gathering places for skillshares, dialogue and action to stop climate change.

July 12-18: Take Back the Land: Douglas Valley action camp (Scotland)
Aug. 3-12: Klimacamp in the Hambach Forest (West Germany)
Aug. 11-18: Klimacamp near Cottbus (East Germany) >

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