In the coal regions of Eastern Germany, the pursuit of designing a future after extractivism has preoccupied the minds of politicians, civic initiatives, and development planners for a while now. Ever since Germany’s national government proclaimed a mandatory exit from coal by 2038 in 2019, and even more since the new government coalition of Social Democrats, Liberals, and Green Party contracted the deadline to 2030 in 2021, debates about the future after coal and the challenges involved in reconfiguring the local complexes of industrial landscapes, energy infrastructure, labor market, and regional identity for a “green” new era have soared in both public and policy discourse.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has called these deadlines into question again. Besides accelerating the energy transition to become independent from oil and gas extracted in Russia, another option under discussion is to extend coal mining until 2045 to account for the predicted shortages since it is seen as the most stable and reliable energy source at hand.
Extractivism and post-extractivism side by side
In this contribution, I sketch the story of Welzow, a provincial coal mining town in the Lusatian mining district near the border to Poland, where I have been undertaking fieldwork since January 2022. Welzow is a place where the processes of remaking of a landscape into an extractivist site and from an extractivist to a post-extractivist site can be observed side by side. Two hundred meters to the North-East of the town, coal excavators are rattling across a vast opencast mine of 11,600 hectares, excess soil is piled up on the slopes, and lignite is mined at a depth of about 120 meters. This is the realm of the past, of the carbon-fuelled project of first socialist, then capitalist modernity, of the seven-decades-long exploitation of the natural environment for energy resources, the costs of which are becoming ever more apparent.
Five kilometers to the South, seven depleted open pit mines are being filled with water, their shores reforested, and the surrounding soil prepared for agricultural use, wind and solar farms, as well as for new settlements with attractive lakeside houses. Day tourists come from nearby cities to camp, cycle, skate, and do water sports here.
This is the realm of the future, where ecotourists come to enjoy ‘Europe’s largest artificial lakescape’ with its immense networks of bike paths, beaches, and campsites, and where locals can forget about the dusty age of coal mining at last.
Moving earth, manufacturing landscapes
This, in brief, is the story of Lusatia’s extractivist past and post-extractivist future as presented in policy documents, tourist brochures, and local development plans. However, an increasing number of projects, calculations, and constructions for the post-extractivist future are facing unforeseen difficulties – for the long history of extractivist activity required multiple rounds of spatial reorganization which have not only left their mark on the region but also conjure up unintended side effects at present.
In fact, Welzow is situated in the midst of a highly manufactured landscape full of engineering devices which hold nature in check and work to transform it from its original state into a mining area and back into ‘nature’ again. Near the active mine, pumps move groundwater away into rivers and lakes to prevent the mine from flooding. At the post-coal lakes, large pipelines bring water back in from nearby rivers. The mining company even removed a local ‘mountain range’ to make space for the mine for which it moved 150 million cubic meters of soil. Another hill was retrospectively added to the landscape to allow the region to experiment with viticulture as a new line of commerce for the time after coal.
In addition, wind and solar parks are being built to get ready for the time after fossil-fuelled energy generation, including on the former mining territories where the soil will remain infertile for decades to come.
Despite all these efforts to submit the landscape to geoengineering plans to shape it in accordance with the needs of extractivist and post-extractivist corporate activities, reports of unanticipated side effects are becoming increasingly frequent. In 2021, two country roads were closed and two speed-restricted for months due to instabilities in the ground and the risk of landslides. The pine forests around Welzow lost about a third of their trees in major storms this year, as their roots are less firmly grounded due to the lowering of groundwater. Most of the remaining ones are infested with bark beetles, parasites that thrive in arid conditions.
Storms increase as wind streams can move across the mines and lakes unrestrained. There are about ten major power cuts per year. A lakeside hotel had to be shut down because the ground was moving and at risk of sliding. The largest post-coal lake of 1,900 hectares which is planned to house Europe’s largest swimming solar park, has had landslides in 2020 where 400.000 tonnes of sand caused a flood wave of eight meters height.
Two other landslides near a town in April 2022 conjured up painful memories of the Nachterstedt catastrophe where three houses slid into a post-coal lake during the night, killing three residents. In 2021, two post-coal lakes had to be closed for tourism because the dam between them had ‘critical deformations’, that is, fissures. Its breaking would have caused a flood wave affecting thousands of households in a radius of more than ten kilometers.
Technological fixes vs. planetary agency
Some residents think that the side effects of coal mining exacerbate the effects of climate change. ‘We’re moving towards a taiga-like climate here: hot and dry summers, cold and dry winters. The soil is becoming useless,’ said one. The natural environment, it turns out, does no longer conform to the ideal scenarios as envisioned by humans. These incidents exemplify what Dipesh Chakrabarty in his book “The Climate of History in a Planetary Age” (2021) calls ‘encounters with the planet.’
In Chakrabarty’s argument, the anthropocentric attitude which had characterized the extractivist age rests on an “innate assurance that the earth provides a stable ground on which we project our political purposes.” As the climate crisis proceeds, however, more and more instances of ‘planetary agency’ confront humans with the finitude of their power as nature more brutally asserts its force.
And yet, humans react to these incidents in the form of more technological fixes along the lines of green capitalism. The ‘critical deformation’ of the dam was fixed by means of inserting sheet pile walls into the ground. Near Welzow, the world’s largest seal wall of 12 kilometers length, 90 meters depth, and 1 meters width is currently being inserted into the ground to prevent the groundwater from the post-coal lakes from flowing towards the active coal mine, which is at risk of being flooded due to the enormous water disequilibrium between the many lakes on the one side and the deep coal pit on the other.
As the landscape undergoes another round of major spatial reorganization for the post-extractivist future, the region is getting caught up in an ever more complex tangle of technological fixes whose unpredicted side effects are then fixed with more fixes likely to produce more side effects. The seal wall, for instance, may well protect the open pit mine from flooding and the post-coal lakes from draining, but it also prevents groundwater from circulating underneath the land of farmers and residents who live in the vicinity of the wall. This further exacerbates the effects of droughts resulting from lowered groundwater levels and a precipitation deficit that has grown to 400 liters per square meter since 2017.
The creation of two more lakes from depleted mines will further reduce the amount of water which flows through the river Spree all the way to Berlin and endanger the water supply for the capital – where, on a side note, Tesla’s first European Gigafactory, built in the midst of a drinking water reserve, will further strain local water resources with its consumption of 1.4 million cubic meters per year, the equivalent of a town with 400,000 inhabitants. Often, however, the real impact of corporate activities is not even known, as real numbers are withheld or massaged. In 2020, for instance, it became known that the Lusatian mining company greatly exceeded the amount of water which it was permitted to pump out of the mining territory – 114.06 million instead of the permitted 42 million cubic meters.
After extractivism: a time never to come?
Eight kilometers to the North of Welzow, the hill which had been removed to excavate the coal underneath it has recently been reinstalled at its original location. In local tourist brochures, this area is now advertised as the first strip of recultivated land that is ‘given back to nature.’ A dirty pond with yellow grasses greets visitors at the bottom of the hill, at the top, there is a bench and a rusty bucket wheel from an old coal excavator.
The landscape is composed of sand and rocks and looks like a desert. At this point, it seems unimaginable that anything will ever grow here. What stands out is a stick-figure-like sculpture, made of black metal, pushing a large rock up the hill. It is Sisyphus, the legendary hubristic figure in Greek mythology who was punished for his witty acts of cheating death with the eternal task of pushing a rock up a hill which is bound to roll back down every time he is just about to reach the top. The artist whom the mining company commissioned to create this artwork describes the sculpture as a ‘symbol for the enormous transformation of Lusatia through coal mining’ which ‘mirrors human endeavors to constantly reorganize their planet.’
Taking Sisyphus as the metaphoric symbol for the efforts of rebuilding a landscape after extractivism is an interesting move. The famous essay of Albert Camus made Sisyphus into a guiding figure of absurdism. Putting this figure at the heart of a post-extractivist landscape might indicate the first step towards a more self-reflective way of thinking about capitalist practices of dealing with the natural environment. However, its striking cynicism might also indicate the realization that human efforts even of recultivation are slowly but surely becoming futile.
I often ask my interlocutors for their future vision for the region. The most striking answer was: “Do you want me to be honest? I think this region will be a desert. Whatever we do, the landscape is not going to recover.”
An absurd, but also unchangeable development?
In Lusatia, the legacy of a century of coal mining is an exhausted landscape that is beginning to stand up against the intense level of human interference. The absurdism here lies in the persistence of the conviction that technological innovation remains synonymous with progress, that technological solutions are still the only ‘way forward,’ that innovation merely needs to be painted green for capitalism to become a friend of the earth after all – despite all the mounting evidence against it.
Thus, when we consider the time after extractivism, it is important not to halt at the moment of closing coal mines and decommissioning carbon-based industries and transforming them into ‘renewable’ industries. We have to take extractivism’s long and complex legacy into account – the wounds inflicted on landscapes, the unanticipated aftereffects, the unintended consequences of maladaptation – and be wary not to do the calculation without the agency of the planet. At present, the policy documents and development plans in which the post-extractivist future is formulated reproduce an anthropocentric approach to the situation and rely entirely on eco-technological solutions. When it comes to facts on the ground, however, planetary agency can no longer be ignored.
As Isabelle Stengers puts it: “We are no longer dealing (only) with a wild and threatening nature, nor with a fragile nature to be protected, nor a nature to be mercilessly exploited. The case is new. […] Offended, [the planet] is indifferent to the question “who is responsible?” and doesn’t act as a righter of wrongs […] No future can be foreseen in which she will give back to us the liberty of ignoring her. It is not a matter of a “bad moment that will pass,” followed by any kind of happy ending – in the shoddy sense of a “problem solved.” […] This “nature” has left behind its traditional role and now has the power to question us all.”
This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available on Berliner Gazette. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here: https://after-extractivism.berlinergazette.de
Friederike Pank is a researcher at the University of Oxford. In her doctoral project, she researches how networks of civic, political, and corporate actors craft and negotiate local futures after the decline of coal in the Eastern German mining district of Lusatia, where Germany’s energy transition towards renewables and the ensuing structural transformation of the industrial landscape must currently be put into practice. Her work is embedded in the research project „Emptiness – Living Capitalism and Democracy after (Post)Socialism and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council of the UK.