#6 The Slow Race Against Time.

Growing up alongside the German environmental movement taught me a few truly Slow Lane insights about what it takes to open our minds, how everything is connected, and the recurring dividend of inclusiveness.

#6 The Slow Race Against Time.
Brokdorf 1976 - source: picture alliance / dpa Martin Athenstädt

This post has been on my mind for a long time. I want to convey a simple set of ideas through my experience of the German green movement, that was born around the same time as me. It is both a simple admission on my part that I overlooked the incredible importance of what was happening on my doorstep. But it also is an appreciation of a movement that had the patience to wait for me, for decades, to find my own path to it. And I will try to explain, how that capacity for patience came about in a movement that always felt that time was running out.

My first real memories start in the mid-1970's, around the same time that Albina Ruiz left the rainforest to move to Lima (see Story #5). At the time, our evening news programs were giving me the first glimpse of one of the defining Slow Lane experiences of our nation. The daily “heute” evening news showed thousands of people desperately protesting against the construction of nuclear power stations. Men, women, local leaders, families, farmers, students. What were they doing? Up to 100,000 people, out in the rain, in muddy fields, they would march, stand, chain themselves to trees and railway tracks. In those days, most experts – like scientists, engineers and politicians – not only said that nuclear power would be the only way to guarantee continued economic growth, but that nuclear power would be completely clean and safe. And yet, so many people were afraid. Afraid that accidents might happen, that radiation might leak into their fields or that families would get poisoned, what to do with the toxic waste. What I didn’t realize until much later, is that one of the epicenters for these protests, the village of Brokdorf with less than a thousand inhabitants, was just outside Hamburg, where I lived. To me, on TV, what happened seemed worlds away. And my personal relationship to this movement is no story of heroic activism on my part. Quite the opposite. I grew up in a conservative leaning home that had no time for these activists, seemingly undermining our national progress and energy independence. This is a small reminder of just how long it can take ordinary people, with no bad intentions, to come around to signing up to a transformative vision for change, and the evolutionary power of movements take within a society.

"Panorama" evening newscast about Brokdorf, 1976

I came of age alongside the green movement in Germany. When I was four years old, the green movement won its first parliamentary seat in a local election. The movement founded the Green Party as it had come to realize that it could not achieve change through civil protest alone. By the time I was a young teenager, at school, I saw that some of my teachers were environmental activists. But instead of feeling inspired by their activism, I struggled to see past their political leanings and unfashionable looks. All this was too abstract for me. What blinded me, was that I had unknowingly taken sides and lost sight of the problem they were trying to solve. In large part, I think this was because my family had taken sides. At home, we were not discussing environmental activism as a matter of ecology, nuclear power or its risks. It was talked about in terms of who was protesting, what lifestyle the protesters represented, their politics. At home, we reduced the broad coalition, that included even conservative farmers, to the polarized politics of what amounted to a two-party political system. Business friendly conservatives on the right versus social-democrats backed by workers on the left. With the protests looking a lot like left wing student and social protests of the 1960’s, and the fact that some of the movement’s leaders had their roots in left-wing activism, our family, like many others, created a shorthand: Environmentalism was just another complaint from the left. At our family meals, the real measure of success was very much the Fast Lane world of business and dominance. Through that lens, the environment was the realm of complainers who weren’t succeeding in the economy and had delusional ideas that would cripple business. These were people who would eat into the privileges of families like ours, who had done well and deserved the freedom to travel and consume as we liked.

Missing the First Signs

1986 might have changed all that. In April, just months before my thirteenth birthday, we were glued to our TV screens as the nuclear catastrophe in Chernobyl unfolded 1,600 kilometers away from our home. The dangers of nuclear power became more tangible as we experienced days of lock-down, when wind and rain had carried radioactive matter onto our streets and schoolyards (in fact even today, our family doctor in Berlin advised us not to eat local mushrooms, still contaminated from the fall-out). In November that same year, another environmental disaster unfolded on our screens. The efforts to extinguish a fire at the Sandoz chemical plant had washed toxic waste into the Rhine river, turning it red and killing whole populations of wildlife. Many more Germans began to come around to the Green Party. In the national elections of 1987, it doubled their vote. The movement had grown exponentially, it seemed, with protests, involving hundreds of thousands of people. But even the melt-down at Chernobyl and the gruesome images of Sandoz, didn’t change my mind. I still couldn't see that these protesters, who had been going strong for over a decade already, were really onto something. Yes, it did reveal the immense risk of nuclear and chemical technology, but it wasn’t enough to shake off my prejudice against the movement. Fed by our family lore, I continued to see them as underachievers, do-gooders and the butt of many jokes in the school-yard. My own social conscience was evolving in a different direction. I tried to come to terms with the social inequities around me, and Germany’s war crimes. Living in a city, the environment remained abstract and of little social or economic relevance to me.

But the environmental movement steadily kept making inroads into my life. As I studied architecture in the 1990’s, a small but growing movement of architects and engineers took on the challenge of sustainable buildings and planning. For a long time they were belittled by the establishment, as reducing buildings to energy concepts. I shared that view, to an extent, seeing them as overly focused on finding engineering-fixes for energy, instead of addressing the immense social, economic and cultural inequities that I had grown increasingly passionate about. Living and working abroad, though, helped me overcome my prejudices. Disconnected from my home politics and social dynamics, I began to lower my defenses to see environmentalism less as a type of people, and more as a cause. The German Green Party, meanwhile, continued on a steady trajectory that would bring them into a governing coalition with the social-democrats in 1998.

Riverlea and the gold mine slag dump. Source: theguardian.com 6 July 2015

It is All Connected, Stupid!

In 1995, I had my first chance to see how intertwined inequality, suppression, economics and environmental crimes often are. It was less than a year after Nelson Mandela had become president of South Africa, putting an end to the apartheid regime of racist white rule. For us, the visit was a field trip with a project in the township of Riverlea in Soweto, on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Soweto had been created under the racist policies of South Africa in the 1930's and became the largest black city in the country. But a South African township was nothing like a city. For decades, millions of black Africans had been forcefully resettled into townships like Soweto where the population could have status only as temporary residents, serving as a workforce for Johannesburg. The racist ideology was reflected in its urban plan, more akin to a prison camp than a city, its infrastructure with 'passion killer' floodlights illuminating the city like an airfield all night, and down to the deliberately cynical low-quality detailing of its 51/9 houses. Radioactive and poisonous waste from abandoned mines was piled into massive mountains right next to peoples' homes in Riverlea, causing terrible respiratory diseases. This dumping of toxic mining waste into poor communities echoed Albina’s first experience of Villa El Salvador twenty years earlier. When, in 1996, I went to work in the shanty towns of Caracas I found the same dehumanizing confluence of severe social injustice and pollution.

In Germany, meanwhile, it took another major nuclear disaster, this time in Fukushima, Japan, for the government to finally mandate an end to nuclear power in Germany. It was almost impossible to argue for safety if a country like Japan, of no lesser engineering prowess than Germany, had so evidently lost control. 40 years of protests by a movement that had become the largest in German history, had thoroughly changed the social and political environment. Within days, the cabinet announced a phasing-out of nuclear energy by the end of 2022. At this point in 2011, The Green Party had become a third mainstream political party in Germany, polling at 25% in some states. I had also changed, had come around to what these protesters had known all along. That the idea, that we would engineer ourselves out of our fossil fuel dependency through nuclear power, was just too risky in the face of unpredictable risks of global warming. And, more importantly, that this wasn't so much about the specific risks of a technology, but the symptom of something broken in our society: Our endless hunger for growth and dominance. In 2021, as I returned to live in Germany after 30 years abroad, things went full circle as I cast my vote for the Green Party.

Wait. Not Everyone can be an Early Adopter.

I felt that I had done next to nothing to help bring this new ecological era about. Instead, Brokdorf taught me a lesson in humility. For 30 years I had missed the opportunity to look and think for myself, to be convinced even by science and proven ideas. I began to beat myself up about it, afraid of what this revealed about me. But at other times, I also cut myself some slack. Had I not passionately pursued a different Slow Lane agenda that was just as meaningful? We cannot possibly be early adopters and activists in every movement. And with time, just as I discovered how inseparable the social injustices I cared about were from environmental problems, the green movement also became more embracing of social impacts, especially once the fight against nuclear power was won. If, according to the environmentalist Barry Commoner, the first law of ecology is that "everything is connected to everything else", there is a good chance that different Slow Lane movements converge over time, just as I had exeperienced it.  

This, for me, raises the truly important lesson to be learned here: The green movement was patiently waiting for me, all along. Although this movement was always fighting against immediate and irreversible destruction, it held its urgency. Its focus on science and evidence meant that it expanded its following, building bridges into my life and work, instead of attacking me. Intentionally or not, it gave itself time to evolve and gave me the time it took to unlearn my prejudices, ideologies, and ideas of success in life.

A Very Unlikely Alliance.

Historians have found it almost impossible to make sense of the German green movement as something resembling a simple series of cause and effect. What in hindsight looks like almost poetic wisdom of patience to me, was by no means an uncontested strategy. Or a strategy at all. This matters because social change never really is a well executed plan. Instead, as Albina's story in Peru revealed also, it happens over very long timeframes responding to events, as much as creating them. What was special about the Green movement in Germany, was that it was such an odd alliance from the start. On the one hand, it was fuelled by left wing activists who had failed to realize their revolutionary dreams in the 1960s. They brought with them protest experience and tactics, as well as participatory models that helped the anti-nuclear movement organize itself. But to the conservative political establishment, this history also associated them with leftist circles, at a time when Germany was experiencing a wave of radical leftist terrorism from the Red Army Faction (RAF). For many, this fed a convenient narrative to cast the entire movement off as leftist radicals. But in reality, the green movement had a much more mainstream membership. It also included thousands of ordinary families and conservative leaning groups like farmers and conservationists.

We cannot understand the impact, and unique trajectory, of the green movement in Germany without appreciating this unusual coalition of radicals, conservative farmers, concerned scientists, feminists, and families at a time of severely polarized politics. Geography was the initial force that united these groups. Germany is seven times more densely populated than the U.S., meaning that any planned nuclear power station was going to be dangerously close to a population center. With so many people feeling at risk, the alliance became a very practical arrangement around specific locations. Protests were organized at these planned nuclear sites, places like Brokdorf, which in turn provided a physical space and opportunity for these groups to have shared experiences in mass protest and activism. And many of these shared experiences included aggressive policing of ordinary folks by a state that was desperate to uphold its laws and policies.

A Pressure Cooker of Inclusiveness.

Apart from their shared mission, there was plenty of distrust among these different groups. Who should lead? What happened behind closed doors? This was a grassroots movement caught up, on live television, in a pressure-cooker of history: the Cold War induced fear of socialism and nuclear threats, internal conflicts among the radical urban left and moderate members, and real-time events like Chernobyl and Sandoz. These circumstances kept forcing the movement to reinvent its tactics, resulting in innovative ways to take decisions, weary of self-proclaimed leaders, and designed to reassure and empower every activist. Unlike the more homogenous movements of the 1960s, this inclusive approach tempered the more radical activists instincts to cast the world into irreconcilable 'us' and 'them' logics. It is a defining characteristic that would be carried over for decades, and keeping the door open to late-comers like myself. And despite the many differences to Albina's journey in Peru, we can see the same Slow Lane Principles (see Story #3) are powerfully present in this journey also, such as sharing the ability to solve: Empowerment is practiced with patience and care, meaning that this invitation to lead meets people where they are, and remains open to anyone, at all times.

I am trying to make a simple point here. It was this early pragmatism around a common cause shared by a diverse group, that led to a culture of listening, debate, inclusiveness, and resistance to traditional forms of hierarchy that defined the political establishment of its time. In my view, much of the long-term resilience and later political success of the Green Party goes back to this strange initial coalition that was full of distrust. The party is known for its extensive debates between realists (Realos) and fundamentalists (Fundis), that have averaged out to a tense form of moderation. It also revolutionized political practices, by institutionalizing procedures that require direct participation in decisions by party members, and have rules to resist the aggregation of power by professional politicians, and instituted a 50% quota for women in party leadership roles and nominations of candidates for elections.

A Slow Race Against Time.

In true Slow Lane fashion, the green movement is by no means complacent or slow by design. Quite the opposite. Urgency has been central to the movement from its inception: to stop nuclear construction projects, harmful policies, or emissions before it was too late. But its diverse founding history has set it up as an interesting mediator of urgency and inclusiveness. It regularly struggles through difficult debates over principles, urgency and pragmatism continue to take place at every turn. But despite the imperfection of politics, it has institutionalized inclusive practices that resonate with the Slow Lane. What started out as a resistance movement of outliers, has evolved into an established political force. Its unique way of involving grassroot members in decisions means that many more ordinary people are involved in weighing the pursuit of politically riskier quick-wins against long-term success on its socio-ecological agenda. The green movement is by no means a simple success story. The average German continues to emit more CO2 than any other European. Politicians have also been direct and indirect enablers of what became known as "Dieselgate", the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal, a systematic fraud by the all-powerful auto industry that has undermined the nation's green credentials. This Slow Lane journey is still in progress, who knows how long it will take. But it is indisputable that the green movement has already made a truly important contribution to democracy, releasing Germany from a two-party system that was defined not by the future, but ideologies anchored in the industrial past. It has added a third dimension to a stale two-party political system, one representing a bold vision for a sustainable future that also introduces new forms of inclusiveness.


In my next post, I will wrap this chapter up with some conclusions about social imagination in the Slow Lane drawing on the stories of Albina Ruiz, Mark Johnson and my experiences among friends and family, as well as the German green movement.