No such thing as the voiceless

Exactly one year ago, I was heading back from my first trip to Keyenbeg. After attending the Climate Reality Leadership Training in June 2018 in Berlin, I debated with those who would become my co-founder at Climate Hub Hamburg, why none of us had ever heard about Keyenberg before. This small village in the heart of the Rhenish lignite mining district is one of many threatened with forced relocation and complete destruction due to the expansion of the lignite mine Garzweiler II, owned by mining giant RWE.

In the past few decades, in Germany alone, tens of thousands of people have lost their homes, countless historical buildings and entire ecosystems have been destroyed, incalculable environmental, physical, and psychological damage has been inflicted on the landscape and the population. All for the sake of turning a highly polluting and scarcely efficient fossil fuel into energy that we now know could be produced in an economically viable way with renewable resources.

And yet, we, a climate-aware group of millennials, had never heard about any of this. As author and activist Arundhati Roy brilliantly put it, “…there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard”. Because the people in Keyenberg and all the other affected villages, have not been silent, and have not stood idly by. They have been fighting and advocating for decades, but no one was listening. Or maybe someone was making sure they weren’t heard. So we decided to create a video series to amplify their voices and at the same time inform and activate others.

Going mainstream

Since our first trip to Keyenberg, in September 2018, much has changed. Luckily for all of us, climate justice has become a hot topic over the last few months, and more and more people are realising that without climate action there is no future for humanity. Or there will be a very grim one. More importantly, more and more people are starting to take action and change their behaviour. But we are far from being done. Coal and lignite fuelled the industries that lifted Germany back up after World War II and turned it into an example of redemption, innovation, and diplomacy, and ultimately in one of the most economically powerful and politically influential nations in the World. The industrial nation narrative is deeply rooted in the modern German identity, which is just another reason why it is so hard for Germany to let go of coal mining, and why it’s not possible to change it by civil action and greener consumption choices alone.

Critical mass and media presence are fundamental to spread awareness and accountability, but can we hope to build a better tomorrow while maintaining the same power structures that brought us to the brink of annihilation? What’s the purpose of buying metal straws and organic cotton t-shirts, if we are still buying them out of consumerism? What’s the point of buying an electric car when it’s still powered by coal and the materials for the batteries are extracted by slave-miners? Is it eating hyper-processed vegan food or imported, water-intensive produce actually more sustainable than eating local fish or chicken? Is it really fair to centre our own white-centred righteousness over the experiences and needs of underrepresented groups of people around the world? Should we really praise billionaires for their private space exploration programmes, when the benefits will only be available to those able to afford them? Does it make any sense to have women in positions of power when they still silence the same voices men do and uphold the same systems of oppression?

One of the challenges ahead of us is to reconcile social justice and climate security as two sides of the same coin. It all boils down to how just our laws and economic systems are towards all people, including future generations, and the environment, and to an understanding on a collective and institutional level that people and the environment are not separate entities, but part of a whole. And to accept that being radical and disobey, has nothing to do with being violent. Activism is not a way to spark conflict, but a mean to bring people together around common issues and values (shouldn’t we all care about surviving?) and lift each other up rather than pointing fingers. Or at least, at pointing them in the right direction. It’s a way to include and amplify voices that are usually — deliberately or not — disregarded in the public space, and to share knowledge.

Is it hard, and sometimes uncomfortable? Yes, but it’s still better than watching the world burn and going extinct.

Resources & links

Are you based in Hamburg? Then join Climate Hub Hamburg and our monthly Meetups:

There are many organisations doing great, inclusive work out there. If you can’t join direct action, you can consider donating or spreading the word.

The original version of this article was written for the upcoming SRM Talk Yearbook, as a follow up on my presentation “We are climate change”, held in June 2019. You can also read it on Medium. All photos © Nico Scagliarini