Political Journalism at New School of Social Research CPCJ program with instructor Natasha Lennard
political media criticism
Lützerath was a village in the German Rhineland near Düsseldorf. It was in the way of the last surface coal mine expansion, Garzweiler II. I drove by the area once on the Autobahn toward Amsterdam, and the mine’s canyon is massive, currently spanning 48 km² (30 square miles). Its gigantic excavators leave behind a black, desolate land that strikes one as a scene of an apocalyptic SciFi planet. Lützerath is not an idyllic place worth saving, but it became known as part of the compromise the coalition partners of the Green party and the Social Democrats struck to push Germany’s planned coal power phase-out up by eight years to 2030. As part of the deal, the electric power company RWE was allowed to expand its vast mine swallowing Lützerath. Greens member and German Economy Minister Robert Habeck defended the village’s demolition, arguing that the coal underneath is needed to maintain energy security. Habeck belongs to the fraction of the Greens dubbed the “Realos,” which governs pragmatically, as opposed to the “Fundies” who insist on not undermining the party’s founding, often radical principles. Lützerath is the inflection point that disillusiones many Green voters, especially young ones.
In a desperate attempt to stop the expansion, demonstrations were organized by climate activist groups like Greenpeace, Last Generation, and Ende Gelände, a German climate justice movement that focuses on direct action and civil disobedience. A Plenarprotokoll documenting the parliamentary proceedings posted on the Greens website mentions that the windows of the Greens party office nearby were smashed. Upon reading this, the far-right AFD rejoiced. Will Lützerrath separate the Green party from its base?
Puzzled, I browsed the website of the Greens to find some answers. The party was founded in 1980 by the anti-nuclear energy movement near my hometown of Freiburg in South-West Germany, six years before the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster. Over the last few decades, the party has matured out of opposition, growing steadily into a coalition partner with major parties, sometimes even becoming the largest party. Governing requires engaging in constructive dialogue and working together —in my dad’s opinion. He studied in the ’60s and, similar to the US’s civil rights movements, many of those scholars became of what is coined the “Generation ’68” and the founders of the Greens. Generation ‘68 is now the Establishment, and their passive compromises keep contributing to the climate crisis. In climate policy, the government is pushing a mountain of unfinished business in front of it.
In 2023 police clashed with young protesters in Lützerrath that had set up camps in trees or dug underground tunnels to stop the expansion. Greta Thunberg joined activists in a major demonstration at the site. “This is a betrayal of present and future generations… Germany is one of the biggest polluters in the world and needs to be held accountable,” Thunberg said on a podium at the protest.
Protesters at the edge of the open pit mine that ultimately swallowed the village of Lützerath, Germany.
Unfortunately, in a write-up in “Die Zeit,” a very established national German newspaper, the author asks if “some stories sound so good, they simply have to be true, or? In Lützerath the Greens chase away their kids.” and laments on the routine division of labor between the climate movement’s nagging or impossible demands and the Greens. He explains that politicians form compromises, and activists like Greta Thunberg criticize them, which puts pressure on the politicians to do better next time. The writer, Robert Pausch, scrutinizes the movement’s goals, which, in his opinion, isn’t leading the dialog by example in a crisis that involves all of society, as if he believes that saving the planet aims to threaten humankind. This childish tone ridicules the shocking images we had to see from the violence that ensued by clearing the protest camps.
In a berating manner, Pausch describes the “ecological protest” movement as “clueless” and then mocks them as maintaining a “strategically clueless” position. He lectures that decisions in democracies are led by applying sensitive pressure to nudge majorities. As an example of an accomplished statesman, he quotes Theodore Roosevelt with union strikers at the end of a meeting: “Okay, you’ve convinced me. Now go out there and bring pressure on me.” Burning coal to produce electricity is one of the absolute biggest climate killers. While the new coalition agreement is indeed the most progressive in history and aims to phase out dirty coal before 2030, any further expansion of coal mining contradicts the Greens’ promise to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. It is critical to take urgent action to reduce burning fossil fuels and limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, as set out in the Paris Agreement. As Europe’s largest emitter of fossil fuels, Germany must take climate activism seriously. Lützerath shows that simply applying pressure with words might not be enough.
The compromise to continue mining dirty coal is absurd, given the weight of the stakes. If the climate crisis is a burning building, but we can only rescue half of its people inside, it’s not a good compromise for anyone.