Habitable Air

Challenging the Hegemony of Lignite Mining in Germany’s Rhineland Region

Felix Lussem, a Ph.D researcher on the Habitable Air project recently wrote an article for the Focaal blog that sheds light on the history and current situation of lignite mining in the Rhineland region of Germany. The article notes that coal mining, historically associated with the development of the welfare state and workers’ rights, has become less labour-intensive and more capital-intensive, leading to the decline of economic dependency on the coal industry in the region. Despite this, the energy company RWE, which currently operates the mines has been considerably involved in local politics.

The state-approved “general public interest” serves as the legal basis for the suspension of fundamental rights, making possible the expropriation of land titles, the demolition of protected landmarks, or the circumvention of guidelines for environmental protection for the extraction of fossil fuels in Germany’s lignite mining regions. However, a coalition of environmentalists, citizen initiatives, radical activists, and other civil society actors has successfully challenged this hegemonic state-industry nexus, and their demands to save the remaining forest in front of the Hambach mine effectively stopped the encroaching extractivist operation.

The prospect of a global climate crisis has led to the current re-evaluation of lignite mining from guarantor of wealth and stability to driver of multi-scalar uncertainties. This has enabled previously marginalised actors to voice their concerns by articulating their demands in terms of globalised discourses. Nonetheless, the (inter-)nationally reported success of the protests around the Hambach Forest was only one instance of ongoing negotiations about the pace and scale of energy transition from the perspective of the critical civil society actors with whom Lussem conducted research in the Rhineland.

Lussem concludes that the carbon-democratic entanglement of political institutions and energy industry experienced in everyday life in the Rhineland’s lignite mining region probably finds its most drastic manifestation in the practice of “creating facts” (“Fakten schaffen”), of which their interlocutors often accuse the mining company. You can access and read the full article using this link.