Headline: Beyond coal: fostering the low-carbon transition in Lusatia

What will follow the coal exit? Lusatia is entering an era of far-reaching change.
What will follow the coal exit? Lusatia is entering an era of far-reaching change. AdobeStock/Imaginis

Roll up your sleeves, seize every opportunity and take the future by the horns! Surely that is the best way to approach the transformation of the economy in the region of Lusatia? Played up by policymakers, this upbeat narrative is indeed vital to the success of what is a mammoth undertaking. But so too are the experiences of people and institutions across the region. As scientists working in the field of sustainable development, we must consider the broader social context of efforts to foster a less resource-intensive economy and way of life in Lusatia.
The Commission on Growth, Structural Change and Employment recently recommended to the Federal Government that Germany should ditch coal power by 2038 and allocate significant funding to the affected regions in order to cushion disruption and support structural transformation in the coal-mining regions. One such region is Lusatia, where 8,000 people are directly employed in the coal-mining and energy industries and a further 14,000 indirectly. The term “structural transformation” refers to the fundamental changes that occur when a central node of economic, social and political life falls away. In this case, that node is coal.

In an ideal world, the major stakeholders – the region’s towns and cities, the state and federal governments, businesses, public associations and citizens – would come together to weigh up the best concepts and work towards a carbon-free, sustainable and life-affirming future. Instead, conflicts have erupted as this looming transformation touches on long-held narratives and experiences that intersect with questions of identity and justice. In the face of the upheavals that lie ahead, these issues have become virulent. And while few of these conflicts are specific to Lusatia, their particular constellation is unique.

Coal has been mined in Lusatia since the end of the 18th century. In the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, more and more underground and opencast mines were established to meet the energy needs of Germany’s burgeoning cities and industries. Industrial labour soon defined the rhythm of daily life for the majority of the population. The Lausitz coal district supplied the entire German Democratic Republic (GDR) with coal-fired power and numerous industries (including glass and textile production as well as mechanical engineering) were established there, which in turn attracted workers to the region. The introduction of the deutschmark and the market economy in the course of German reunification placed mining companies in the formerly socialist Eastern German regions under intense pressure and forced many out of business. Tens of thousands of workers lost their jobs within the space of just a few years. The individual and collective rhythm was lost.

For centuries people had migrated to and from Lusatia. The Sorbs – now recognized as an ethnic minority – are the region’s longest inhabitants. The industrial policies of the GDR triggered an unprecedented influx of people into Lusatia. The populations of cities such as Weißwasser or Hoyerswerda grew exponentially as large, prefabricated housing estates were established close by the new factories. When these industries collapsed in the 1990s, thousands of people – indeed a majority of young people and women, in particular – emigrated to larger cities and to “the West”. This experience of (in)voluntary departures and strandings is deeply woven into individual and collective memories across the region, even though populations have stabilized in many areas in recent years – leaving and remaining have become survival strategies.

The region of Lusatia is located between the major urban centres of Dresden, Leipzig, Berlin and Breslau, which attract the lion’s share of capital, people, ideas, and public attention. Unless they are on holiday or visiting family, most people simply pass through Lusatia. It is no surprise that the recent debate about the growing population of wolves in the region has been conducted with such passion, as their return could not be more symbolic of its peripheral status. For decades, the region was given largely ignored by the press – and the little coverage it received was almost always negative. The ideas put forward by the federal government and the states of Brandenburg and Saxony to revitalize its ailing economy did not add up to much more than an assortment of cycle paths, bypasses and the flooding of vast tracts of land to create a new lake district.

Of course, this history of job losses, migration and rural decline is just one side of the coin. As the many companies, cultural institutions, initiatives and festivals established here over the years demonstrate, the people of Lusatia, which now boasts a population of roughly one million, are by no means trapped in some kind of individual or collective stasis. But in order to foster structural change, we must recognize which structures hold sway in the region. And for decades these have been shaped largely by economic and state interests, which have defined the scope for action of individuals, towns and entire districts.

In the early 1990s, hopes were high, buoyed by the belief that new freedoms would bring prosperity to the region while also empowering people to pursue their vision of a good life. But the opposite was the case. The disruption wrought by this transformation, which affected all areas of life, echoes into the present day as individual and collective experiences of the loss of identity, property, and social stability. It is these experiences that fuel scepticism with respect to the Commission’s recommendations for “growth, structural change and employment” and the ability of political and administrative actors to guide this development. Even citizens concerned about climate change view the government’s proposed coal exit as an external intervention that threatens to undermine the identity and economic basis of Lusatia by shuttering a linchpin industry.

The coal exit is one step on the way towards the Post-fossil Age of the 21st century, and 20th century instruments such as infrastructure investments and the relocation of government agencies will probably not be enough to make it a success. In any case, people are far less willing to place their hopes in such strategies than they were in the early 1990s. These circumstances are reflected in the efforts of the research project Social Transformation and Policy Advice in Lusatia to identify relevant social dispositions and their effects and, in a parallel transformative research process, to evaluate the existing options for action and support stakeholders through critical, scientific study and monitoring.

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