Eco-movement in industrialized countries: dawn of the imperialists

Not even a proper Castor transport can be stopped anymore. None left. The eco-movement becomes less important. That is good.

Back then in Dannenberg. Picture: reuters

Few people break down in tears when a wind turbine stands still. Even when the EU decided in the spring to introduce stricter guidelines for CO2 emissions from new cars in 2021 instead of 2020, no street battles between police and angry environmentalists have survived from Brussels.

Those were the days! When the algae in the Adriatic flourished, the seals in the North Sea died, the fish in the Rhine swam upside down and the forest let its dying branches hang. Today, not even a proper Castor transport can be stopped. There are no more.

Nobody wants all that back. But the environmental movements in Germany and Europe are running out of simple stories on the ground, simple images. With real enemies and heroes who climb chimneys and chain themselves to railroad tracks. Environmental protection has become technical, hiding in the details of the energy transition or nuances of Brussels laws.

"We no longer have the strong emotional images in Europe," says Christian Bussau of Greenpeace Germany. For some time now, the organization has been rebuilding itself: Its headquarters in Amsterdam, reeling from a 3.8 million euro loss scandal, is getting smaller. Meanwhile, 200 of the 2,000 permanent employees worldwide work in China. The tightly centralized organization wants to become decentralized and go where there are not only the strong images but also the biggest environmental messes: rainforest in Brazil, smog in Beijing, oil drilling in the Arctic. The head Kumi Naidoo is South African anyway.

Ursula von der Leyen and Andrea Nahles are the most powerful ministers in Merkel’s cabinet. Katrin Goring-Eckardt and Sahra Wagenknecht lead the opposition. Anja Maier met the four female politicians and asked them the question of power. You can read her story "Thank you, we’re taking over" in the wochenende of June 28/29, 2014. Also: What Tori Amos is learning from her daughter. And: How a Stiftung Warentest deficiency rating comes about. A visit to an institution that is turning 50. At the kiosk, eKiosk or right away in a practical weekend subscription.

Greenpeace is just one organization among many. The rainbow warriors are late to the party with their realization that campaigns designed at headquarters in Amsterdam are hardly suitable for local problems. Until now, they have played a role of their own in the spectrum of environmental organizations anyway: fighting big enemies like Gazprom, Shell, BP and Exxon with big campaigns. Other organizations such as La Via Campesina, an international movement of small farmers and agricultural workers based in Jakarta, Indonesia, have a different approach: networks of local organizations work on a small scale, toiling to find compromises between people and nature on the ground, without a big campaign bang.

The bad conscience of the North

It’s a more honest approach, not designed for the guilty conscience of the North. For Greenpeace, the conversion is also a late reaction to the gradual end of the power of big-city dwellers in rich industrialized countries to define how environmental protection should work.

Here’s a little thought experiment: Imagine Chinese environmental activists coming to Brandenburg and demanding an immediate end to open-pit lignite mining – "CO2 sour grapes!" Or Brazilians demonstrating in Potsdam for an end to corn monocultures – "Meu deus! You already cut down your German jungle centuries ago!" Wouldn’t we say: Wait a minute, you have no idea about the conflicts on the ground. It’s not all that simple.

Of course, the comparison is striking: consumption in Europe and North America, global supply chains and corporations are the cause of environmental destruction in many countries of the South. In this respect, it makes sense for NGOs from the North to work there and fight with the people to preserve the natural foundations of life.

In the North, however, environmental protection is characterized by polar-bear-on-ice-skate environmentalism à la Greenpeace, which has always had something of an indulgence about it: it stands for a nature-romantic idea of wilderness that must be preserved. The primeval forest is a paradise, untouched by human sins. An act of transgression: on our own doorstep, everything we perceive as "nature" has long since been a cultural landscape deformed by humans. In Berlin, even a disused airport is perceived as so close to nature that it must remain unchanged. It does not follow from this that the commitment to rainforests or orangutans is nonsense.

First World flavor

But it too often remains superficial. Indian environmental historian Ramachandra Guha speaks of "green missionaries" and "green imperialism." He showed that the concept of large national parks in India, completely untouched by humans, can be counterproductive in many places: Then, when traditionally living people are displaced or wild elephants again attack people at the edges of the parks. His examples show that environmental protection as an end in itself does not work. The approach is too cheap.

Where more and more people are pushing into nature, concepts for coexistence have to be developed, not striking friend-foe schemes. "In parts of the Third World, ‘environment’ has such a First World connotation that it would probably be better to talk about concrete land problems so that those affected understand that it is their own vital interests that are at stake," writes historian Joachim Radkau in his 2011 standard work "The Era of Ecology – A World History."

The emancipation of the environmental movements from the power of the North is urgently needed: This is the only way to convey to the poor masses in emerging countries that it is about their concerns, about their livelihoods, not about the bad conscience of rich countries. The homo oecologicus of the North has disenchanted himself after decades of work by NGOs with good media networks. He lives in deep contradictions, flies, drives, eats and buys what he likes, rails in relief against the corporations that supply him with all this, and donates to Greenpeace.

Political systems have sucked up environmental protection and are crumbling it into declarations of intent and paragraphs in conferences. The most significant achievement of recent years is that more and more middle-class people are eating into the emerging economies. All attempts to curb the world’s hunger for raw materials are moving far too slowly.

If the global environmental movements need anything, it’s the anger and outrage of those whose livelihoods are being stolen. Perhaps Greenpeace should simply close its headquarters in Amsterdam and move to Nairobi.