by Andreas Malm
On Sunday afternoon, Swedish national television publishes what must be deemed a sensational report: for the first time, a coal-fired power plant in central Europe has been shut down by climate activists. All electricity production at Schwarze Pumpe – ‘black pump’ – has ceased due to shortage of coal. The spokesperson for Vattenfall, the state-owned Swedish corporation operating the east German plant, declares that some heat is still being generated, but that activists blocking the supply routes from its nearby mine have succeeded in starving it of fuel for electricity; moreover, sabotage of machines and storages will make it ‘impossible to restart production even if the activists disappear. There has to be repairs.’
By the time the news emerges, the nostrils of my daughter have turned a deep black. The site of the camp known as Ende Gelände – roughly ‘the end of the road’ – might appear idyllic at first, with spring green forests and wind farms studding the horizon and frogs croaking loud as geese in the night, but above the region drifts the permanent cloud from the chimneys of Schwarze Pumpe and two other plants. All three are volcanic in size; all run on lignite coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels; Vattenfall owns all of them. They are among the largest point-sources of CO2 emissions in the world.
Extracted from open-cast mines whose craters stretch as long as the eye can see, the coal is delivered to the fireplaces, from whence the soot drizzles over the landscape. But mixed into the atmosphere, the invisible carbon dioxide touches the lives of millions and millions of people on the other side of the planet. The quarter of the camp where we have raised our tent is named after the sinking nation of Kiribati.
On Friday, the multi-pronged offensive against Schwartze Pumpe sets off from the climate action camp, the largest so far in Europe. Hundreds of activists descend into the mines, seize the diggers or ‘baggers’ as the Germans call them – machines looking like something out of Saruman’s caverns, scoping through the earth with teeth the size of several containers – and stay there for the weekend.
On Saturday morning, we take the railway lines. I briefly bring my daughter up to the blockade. She finds some flowers along the tracks and marvels at the helicopter overhead. By now, the cloud from Schwartze Pumpe has been reduced to a whiff.
In the parliamentary elections in Sweden in 2014, Gustav Fridolin, leader of the Green Party, kept a piece of coal in his pocket. Wherever he went, in every speech and televised debate, he waved that piece of coal and promised, stern determination in his voice, to take the hands of the Swedish state off the fuel. Deep inside the pits of eastern Germany, those hands have long sullied the highly prized reputation of Sweden as a ‘pioneering country’ in climate politics. By the time of the election, Vattenfall produced CO2 emissions from its German mines and plants equal to all emissions from Swedish territory plus a third. Now, Fridolin declared, was the time to close those facilities once and for all. The state could terminate more emissions than its entire country give off with the stroke of a pen. If the Greens entered the government – the single most important promise of their election campaign – they would make sure that Vattenfall liquidated its assets. What could be easier, more sensible, more obviously the right thing to do?
Two years later, those assets are no longer in Swedish hands. Instead, they have been sold to a consortium of capitalists from the Czech republic – including its richest man –craving more resources for the lignite renaissance currently sweeping out from this corner of Europe. The Greens, in short, have resolved to throw some of the greatest European lignite riches straight into the mouth of fossil capital. It’s a collapse of nearly Syrizian magnitude. Indeed, it has contributed to the worst crisis in the history of the Swedish Green Party – probably the most influential of its kind – and hence one of the worst in the history of liberal parliamentary environmentalism.
Perhaps this is why Swedish activists are so well represented on the railway lines and in the shafts. Political careerists like Gustav Fridolin will evidently not make sure fossil fuels stay in the ground. But others may yet.
On Saturday afternoon, as we tear apart the fences around Schwarze Pumpe, a sense of exhilaration rushes through me: finally, I feel, we are doing something infinitely more important and real than marching through some forlorn December streets by the time of the annual COP spectacle. With the Break Free campaign, the climate movement is refining its new formula of truly direct action: now we are trespassing onto the grounds of fossil fuel combustion itself. Here we are, three or four thousands engaging in concerted, coordinated, long-advertised mass action around the black pump to actually shut it down.
As some 700 activists stream into the compound, most of us dressed in the thin white overalls that have become the trademark of Ende Gelände, the police are caught utterly off guard. Some nitpickers have already started complaining – tearing apart a fence! weren’t you supposed to be non-violent? – but the only mistake of the incursion is the lack of a clear plan. No one believed that we would reach this far; no one knows where on the site to pull the plugs: that’s what should be learnt for next time. Now the police catch up with us and start working their batons and their pepper spray on whatever body they can reach. We retreat to the railway line, hold if for another day and see the whiff from the chimneys growing ever fainter.
Some have argued that the problem of climate change cannot be solved because the enemy is so diffuse as to virtually dissolve in the air. The situation should be seen only slightly differently: the enemy is everywhere in front of us. There is no shortage of appropriate targets – think of all the coal-fired power plants, the pipelines, the SUVs, the expanding airports, the growing suburban shopping malls and you will not stop thinking but continue mapping your vicinities throughout this night and the next – and that is precisely where the problem has to be solved, or rather, given where we now find ourselves, contained on a level that might be made liveable. That is the scale to which the movement must ascend. Obviously, it cannot make the requisite decisions to bury all this world-encompassing infrastructure – if some currents believe that direct action is sufficient, they suffer a delusion – but it can build the pressure on the states of the world and the Fridolins that govern them. It can potentially multiply itself, springing two, three, many Ende Gelände into action in every region of the fossil economy. It remains unlikely that zero emissions will happen with anything less.
Andreas Malm teaches human ecology at Lund University, Sweden. His work has appeared in journals such as Environmental History, Historical Materialism, Antipode and Organization & Environment. He is the author, with Shora Esmailian, of Iran on the Brink: Rising Workers and Threats of War, and of Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming and of half a dozen books in Swedish on political economy, the Middle East and climate change.If you like this article, please subscribe or donate.