I have heard many stories about the sheer scale and surreality of RWE’s coal mining operations in North Rhine-Westphalia. They prompted me to visit the Rhenish Brown Coal region myself. There really is no better day than a foggy Sunday in mid-February.
A few weeks ago, RWE and the German police sealed Germany’s failure to keep its promises to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by evacuating Lützerath, a small village on the edge of Garzweiler I.
Garzweiler is one of three active coal mines in the region west of Aachen. The others are Hambach and Inden.
Lützerath doesn’t exist anymore, RWE destroyed every building and cut down every tree as soon as there were no more activists to protect it. If you leave the motorway at Jackerath, a village next to where Lützerath used to be, the road to Lützerath is blocked and protected by a lone private security guard. You only know it’s the road because someone took a felt-tip pen and added Lützerath to the road sign.
All the mines have small outlooks, so you can see the destruction for yourself - accompanied by signs from RWE advertising their climate bona fides, the engineering marvels of their bucket wheel excavators (basically they are very big and very good at moving large swathes of earth).
The day was foggy, which added to the apocalyptic scenes of these mines. Pictures don’t really do it justice. There is an eerie silence in the mines, except for the rumble of the conveyor belts that carry away the mined material.
There is also a smell in the air. It’s dust. But there’s something else missing.
It’s only a short drive from Garzweiler to Hambach, the largest lignite mine in Europe. If the sight of Garzweiler is unsettling, Hambach – even hidden in the mist – is downright depressing.
To the south of the mine is a small ray of hope. The Hambach Forest is an old-growth forest. For more than a decade, climate activists have been fighting to save it. In 2018, the forest was to be cleared and the activists’ camp evicted by the police so that RWE could clear it. It was stopped at the last minute. The activists immediately returned to the forest, squatted in the treetops, and have remained there until now.
During the eviction, activist and documentary filmmaker Steffen Meyn died. If you are in Berlin, the Berlinale is showing «Vergiss Meyn Nicht», a film based on Meyn’s material and his time in the forest.
As soon as you leave the forest, you are back on the edge of Mordor. RWE has driven the mine as close to the forest as possible. The long-term effects aren’t clear yet. The soil can no longer hold water, increasing drought stress. The mine itself – an endless mass of brown and black – leads to higher temperatures than in the surrounding landscape. The closer the mine is to the forest, the greater the likelihood of serious damage, according to the German NGO BUND.
Which makes the next part even stranger: Manheim is a village a few hundred metres from the edge of the mine. It’s to be destroyed so that the Hambacher Forest can be further enclosed by the mine. But not because RWE needs the coal under the village. Because they require the earth.
So much land has been destroyed in the mining process that RWE fears that the mine face could slip away, taking parts of the forest with it.
So, RWE’s equation is this: We’ll destroy more nature to save what we’ve ruined. It’s a feat of renaturation, according to their press releases.
Manheim and Morschenich, another village near the forest, are – for now – still visible reminders of the social costs of mining. Most of the houses are empty and barricaded. The excavators haven’t reached them yet, but in the case of Manheim at least, it seems almost certain that they will.
RWE’s force of destruction is creeping ever closer to the village. Remnants of the A4, still passable by bike a few months ago, are now gone, leaving only a muddy path and the median strip as evidence of its existence.
Drive on, and you’ll find the next viewpoint into the pit. RWE has built a restaurant here. For some reason, they didn’t call it Restaurant at the End of the World, but Forum Terra Nova. I guess nobody knows what this new earth is supposed to be.
Somehow, all this is supposed to be for the betterment of society – and the environment.
I can’t really believe it. Not seeing the destruction. Hearing the rumble of the machines. Smelling the air devoid of life.