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The magical realist of climate politics: Tadzio Müller

Environmentalist Tadzio Müller on Berlin’s bad air and Germany’s car fetish, what’s next for mining regions and why the future of our planet could well be in the hands of bright-eyed kids.

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Photo by Kathrin Tschirner

Environmentalist Tadzio Müller on Berlin’s bad air and Germany’s car fetish, what’s next for mining regions and why the future of our planet could well be in the hands of bright-eyed kids.

Germany sees itself as an ecological champion. How green is it really?

We’re the only major industrialised country to commit to a nuclear phase-out after Fukushima. We also have an effective energy law that expands our renewable sector through citizens instead of large-scale corporations, who often end up giving renewables a very bad rap. Through this so-called “citizens’ energy”, half of our renewable capacity, which already makes up around 40 percent of German electricity production, falls under small-scale ownership: individuals, farmers, co-ops, municipal utilities, who, for example, have solar panels on their roofs. So our renewable sector is really broad, dynamic and fairly democratic. And that is nothing to scoff at. On the other hand, in more concrete terms, Germany is the opposite of an eco-champion. It burns more lignite than any other country in the world – more than China or India. And the German car sector is a global environmental disaster. The true environmental champions in Germany are its social movements, from the anti-coal to the anti-nuclear campaigns.

Why are these movements so strong in Germany?

The Brits always think it’s about German romanticism and our forests. That may be true, but it’s also because in the 1960s and 1970s, the environmental question became articulated within a generational divide between those who still either defended or ignored the Nazi era and a younger generation who wanted a different kind of Germany. Environmental issues became morally charged. It became a question of being a good, modern, enlightened person, or not.

This moral shift has become a defining feature of modern German politics. Why is that?

Being seen as an environmental champion was very important in Germany’s rise to its new position of power post-2008. Germany is more powerful today than at any other point since 1942. But you need to legitimise that role somehow. Clearly, the last two times Germany had great power ambitions, it didn’t go so well – fortunately so. That means that German politicians can’t appeal to some random historical German past as Boris Johnson does with Britain. You can’t say, we’ll be a Great Deutschland again. And Germany isn’t known as a particularly liberal country. So environmentalism became the hegemonic ideal in Germany’s leadership project. It’s an ethical core that stresses the ability to deal with these new, post war power issues.

Are Germany’s green credentials even compatible with its status as Export-Weltmeister though?

Absolutely not. If your business model relies on being the world’s leading exporter, i.e. on selling your industrial goods, either machines or cars, to the rest of the world, you’re a key part of an essentially destructive industrial machine that is killing the planet and creating environmental injustice. Germany’s Coal Commission recently published their report and recommended phasing out coal by 2038, a time frame that disappointed climate activists. Would an earlier phase-out date have been realistic though? Not in the current political system. But my take on this is that policy projections over 20 years are nonsense. The fact is, the Coal Commission suggested a compromise that would mandate a phase-out of one of the dirtiest fossil fuels around in one of the richest countries in the world after five legislative periods from now! Anybody involved in agreeing to that compromise should never be allowed to say anything about environmental policy ever again. They have proven themselves unfit for office, and should be treated as a complete nutjob, a German Trump. But essentially, the decision reflects the balance of forces in the German political economic system.

Now we’re seeing a younger generation take to the streets. Can they help change the status quo and meaningfully influence the people in charge? The Coal Commission for example?

I can only recommend, to those who happen to be free on a Friday morning: check out the Fridays For Future campaign at Invalidenpark. If you’ve been an environmental activist for a long time, you can sometimes get a bit defeatist. Then you see this fresh, dynamic movement emerge and it gives you hope. However, my fascination with this generation goes far beyond that. I come from a Marxist tradition, which is a problem once you start talking about massive environmental transformation in the Global North. People here live by-and-large reasonably well, in material terms, off of a system that externalises the cost of our way of life onto others elsewhere. Stephan Lessenich, a German sociologist, said: “We’re not living above our own means, we’re living above the means of others”. And we must be the ones that start imposing radical climate regulation because, historically, we have created the problem. Traditional Marxist analysis says that the working class has both the interest and the capacity to change the world. The problem is that it’s just not true any longer, not for today’s industrial workers in the Global North. So the kids of Fridays For Future are the answer to the question of who is going to be the driver of this radical change, if anyone, in the North.

FDP politician Christian Lindner told Bild that kids should leave climate protection to the pros…

If you look at climate professionals today, they have utterly failed. As Greta Thunberg said: “I’m not going to tell you to speed up your efforts on climate protection. There are no efforts.” Students are the ones who can radically change our discourse.

Greta Thunberg has become an influential figure within a new global movement. What’s her secret?

Her charisma isn’t the kind you normally find in politics. She’s the classic figure of the hermit. She stands way outside of society, unable to normalise – which is connected with her Asperger’s. Anybody who hears on the news that the world is ending should, rationally, not be able to sleep anymore! But theorists like Žižek have long explained how post-modernity functions: precisely through such a cognitive dissonance. Like, we know that the environment is fucked, but, you know, electricity prices, jobs… Greta reminds us that we are fucked. As a movement, we’ve been saying that for 10 years but we haven’t got anywhere near as far as these kids have. Their strength lies in the fact that they are a cross-class phenomenon, existing in every social group. They’re not a movement, they are a generation.

You’re also a spokesperson for the Ende Gelände movement which has been behind mass acts of civil disobedience, with the aim of blocking infrastructure at brown coal power stations. These protest actions often anger locals, who are reliant on the mines for work. Is it not problematic for educated metropolitans to go to the countryside wagging their finger and demonising the backbone of local economies?

From a local justice perspective, yes. But the point about climate change is precisely that it’s about global justice. Let me put it differently: how come these people in Lusatia or the Rhineland get to decide what to do with their lignite if the effects of burning it impact other people elsewhere? Isn’t it necessary that people in say, Bolivia, the Philippines or those who live in villages destroyed to make way for open-cast mines, also have a voice in German politics? We need to have a societal conversation in the North in which we decide to not be arseholes on a global scale and accept to change our model of production. On a global level, the folks in Lusatia and the Rhineland aren’t the ones that are the most fucked. I spoke with a Philippino friend of mine and she could understand the resistance from workers. “You’re telling them to go into unemployment,” she said. But then I explained they would all be protected by the German welfare state. The Coal Commission is planning on transferring billions into these old coal mine regions. To which my friend replied: “Well then I would say, guys, pull your heads out of your arses and show some solidarity.”

But how do you communicate that without coming across as condescending and alienating these communities?

The left’s way of dealing with that tension was just to create nice-sounding, but ultimately hollow phrases about a “just transition”. I will be honest: we cannot make a convincing offer of what will come after coal because there is nothing. Even the Chinese government, with its authoritarianism and much greater planning capabilities, couldn’t replace a large industrial monoculture with another that provides similarly solid, well-paid jobs. And I say this as somebody who has researched this for several years.

That’s a refreshingly honest answer.

I’ve sat in meetings between climate activists and workers in coal regions. We had three or four meetings in the Rhineland and spoke openly and honestly with each other. At one point, a miner looked at four of us climate activists and said: “Do you know what the only thing is that we’ve been offered as a large-scale alternative to the current coal system? An Amazon logistics centre.” Mining has a strong identity and tradition. They’re proud people. And then somebody comes along and says, “how about you work for Amazon, stacking boxes?” Once I heard that, I realised they will always fight us. They will always fight the shutdown of their jobs because it is what makes sense to them.

As a result, Die Linke seems to cosy up to the coal industry in Brandenburg out of fear of losing votes. So what’s the solution? The kids?

Try to tell a 12-year-old about industrial jobs in the Rhineland. You’re basically telling them, we don’t care about your future, we want to talk about our present.”

Yes, kids could change things and push the limits of possibility. Why? Because so far, whenever we have said we need a rapid coal phase-out, we suddenly end up in a debate with all the other interests in society: the workers, the political structures in regions dependent on coal, the companies that rely on cheap electricity, and we need to compromise. But the climate doesn’t compromise! The classical understanding of political negotiation doesn’t work here, because climate change needs to become the ultimate priority of society. Now try to tell a 12-year-old about industrial jobs in the Lausitz or the Rhineland. You’re basically telling them, we don’t care about your future, we want to talk about our present.

Do you think the Greens have lost their credibility by partaking in power and failing to bring more changes?

Some in the Green Party are still committed to a radical environmental agenda but they’re dwindling – their wing wasn’t able to put up any candidates for the party leadership. Overall, the Greens want to be part of a German machine based on this destructive export model. It’s a decision any green party has to make: whether to adopt a green capitalist export model or stay in radical opposition.

How about on a local level? How would you rate Berlin’s policies when it comes to environmental issues?

From the Mobilitätsgesetz to the Klimaschutzgesetz, the environmental initiatives passed by the new rot-rot-grün government are real and progressive. We’ll have to see what effects they have but the city government has been moving in the right direction. Historically, Berlin has been governed by either conservatives or social democrats – both of whom have been deeply corrupt and allied with finance and construction capital. This is the first time the Greens are anywhere near power.

The city has a high level of air pollution caused by motorised traffic, yet the Senat is still moving ahead to extend the A100 Autobahn. Are our politicians too cosy with car-industry lobbyists?

Cars are as deeply embedded in the Germans’ psyche as guns are in the Americans.”

Germany is a car country and every German chancellorship has been a car chancellorship. Depending on how you calculate it, every 10th job in Germany is connected with the industry. It’s like if Wall Street fucked the NRA, their homunculus baby would be the German car sector. And I mean this, because on the one hand, cars are as deeply embedded in the German psyche as guns are in the American’s. And the sector is as politically well-connected as Wall Street.

So are electric cars the way forward?

If you look at the life cycles of electric vehicles, they may be better for the climate – they produce fewer emissions after about seven years. But on a resource level, they’re still complete insanity. First of all, we still don’t have much green electricity. But also the idea of individual automobility, where we each have a very large, complex, resource-intensive vehicle to shuttle us around, is insane on every level – even if they weren’t powered by fossil fuels that destroy the climate. Would car-sharing programmes be the solution then? Car-sharing programmes have ironically not lead to a reduction in the number of cars in cities. Studies have shown that they’re used by people who wouldn’t buy cars anyway. Electromobility is more or less an attempt to do what we have always been saying green capitalism does: not solving the environmental crisis, but using the dynamic created by the environmental crisis to kick off a new round of growth.

Some politicians have mooted the idea of free public transport in Berlin. Could this be a sustainable model for the future?

Free public transport is something that can be implemented fairly quickly, depending on how much money a city invests in the system. It can also be done pretty cheaply if you remove barriers and ticket inspectors. The reason it’s not happening, though, is because of the social capital of cars. I don’t just mean the car industry and its lobbying in a traditional sense. There is this sexual, emotional worship of cars in Germany. They’re everywhere, from the highest levels of the state to the lowest levels of our crotches.

I imagine a lot of Berliners reaching for their pitchforks if their Kiez was made car-free.

This is why you need a classical, radical movement. We need to tap into that energy of the anti-nuclear and anti-coal struggles and move towards an anti-car society. Let’s not forget that 20 years ago, environmental movements weren’t always seen as the good guys. It took ages for climate discourse to resonate more widely. We need to recognise that we’ll have to go back to a position where people will look at us as if we were crazy – precisely because it is society that is actually insane. We’ve seen this with the debate on speed limits in Germany. Andreas Scheuer, the transport minister, is basically the gimp of the car industry.

Is there an anti-car movement to speak of yet?

Activists are currently organising the first big anti-car action in September at the International Motor Show in Frankfurt. In Berlin, there will also be actions at Volkswagen’s shareholders’ AGM in May.

So is it too late to save the planet?

If you look at what’s actually been happening with the climate, we’re always at the worst-case scenario end of the previous projections. Plus, in terms of political power relations around the globe, namely the use of fossil fuel in China, India and countries in the Global North, my honest answer is: it’s pretty unlikely we’ll be able to save the planet. It won’t be a situation where the world ends in one day or that we all end up sitting in the same boat. But it will mean the poorest and most marginalised dying first and the richest and most powerful, who have done most to cause the problem, dying last.

Well, that’s bad news. So why bother and campaign for climate justice if we’re all doomed anyway?

Social movements operate at the edge of what is possible. They are the magical realist element of politics.”

The interesting thing about social movements is that they operate at the edge of what is possible. Social movements are the magical realist element of politics. They’re the crazy factor. The only way we can stop the damage is if society changes fundamentally. And fundamental, societal change might at some point be legislated, but it never starts at the legislative level. Take Germany: anything good that has happened in environmental policy – and good stuff has happened – was the result of massively powerful social movements fighting for it.


Tadzio Müller, born 1976 in Frankfurt am Main, is the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung’s advisor for climate justice and energy democracy. His research and publications focus on social movements and Germany’s Energiewende (energy transition). Müller is also a climate activist and spokesperson for Ende Gelände, a network that engages in mass acts of civil disobedience to blockade brown coal infrastructure. He lives in Neukölln with his husband.