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18 January

What Greta Thunberg’s arrest means

Climate activists are facing dark times with courage.

By India Bourke

“It really looks like Mordor,” Greta Thunberg said this past weekend as she gazed down upon a vast, open-cast coal mine in North Rhine-Westphalia, western Germany. The Swedish climate activist had joined over 6,000 fellow demonstrators in an attempt to prevent the village of Lützerath from being swallowed up by expansion of the mine. Their defences were bricks, tree branches and tall wooden tripods placed in roads; in one widely-shared clip a “mud wizard” robed in a hooded brown cloak appeared to taunt police officers trying to pull their boots loose from the water-logged ground. Down in the mine’s scarred crater, meanwhile, the teeth of a giant circular digger cut ever further into the earth.

The comparison to The Lord of the Rings may seem trite at a time when the stakes are so high. To its supporters, the mine is essential to Germany’s energy security following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. To its opponents, the greater concern is for the millions already suffering and dying in climate-change induced disasters. The violence at the protest site was also all too real: police claimed that 70 officers were wounded in the process of evicting protesters on Sunday (15 January), while a medic said 20 activists had to be taken to hospital. 

Mordor comparisons are “nice metaphors”, a spokesperson for Ende Gelände, a German civil disobedience movement that has been resisting coal mines since 2015, told the New Statesman, “but we are fighting in reality, in the real world of capitalism”.

Capturing the public’s imagination has been crucial to Ende Gelände’s cause. In 2020 a similar protest campaign eventually secured a reprieve for an area of ancient forest bordering the Garzweiler mine, which is near Cologne. Tolkien wrote that “the old world will burn in the fire of industry”, and a burning world indeed awaits if coal mining isn’t stopped, as UN experts have warned

In courtrooms and parliamentary chambers around the world a simultaneous battle is being waged over the very right to hold fossil fuel producers to account. In the UK this week, the government announced that it intends to amend its Public Order Bill so that it is possible to shut down disruptive protests before they even begin. “Could there be any better reason to protest?” Extinction Rebellion told the New Statesman in response.

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In this context, the German activists’ struggle may yet energise a wave of protests. On Monday the fossil fuels lobby appeared to have the upper hand at Lützerath; only a few protesters remained, huddled in underground tunnels as the machines approached. But by Tuesday the activists had re-grouped, with a smaller number returning to the site to start a sit-in, Thunberg among them. She and others were detained by German police before being let go in the evening. “Climate protection is not a crime,” she tweeted.

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The momentum from the mine protest is already spreading internationally. A letter by the campaign group Avaaz calling on fossil fuel CEOs at the World Economic Forum in Davos to “immediately stop” opening extraction sites has garnered almost a million signatures. “With Lützerath, a great cohesion of all who fight for climate justice has emerged,” Ende Gelände said. “We show: Lützerath lives. From now on, Lützerath is everywhere.”

[See also: How many floods will it take for the Tories to take net zero seriously?]