Environmental Movement
The heirs of the environmental movement are dissatisfied

Today’s environmental movement attaches great importance to providing strong images of their activities for the media – a protest against deforestation by Extinction Rebellion in Berlin 2020.
Today’s environmental movement attaches great importance to providing strong images of their activities for the media – a protest against deforestation by Extinction Rebellion in Berlin 2020. | Photo (detail): © picture alliance/AA/Abdulhamid Hosbas

The climate protectors of Fridays for Future have brought the environment issue back to the streets – just like their predecessors in the 1970s. The older generation does not seem radical enough to the young activists. Both movements, however, have a lot in common.

By Wolfgang Mulke

With global climate strikes and similar initiatives, the Fridays for Future movement has generated a lot of attention for its concerns over recent years. Above all, the Swede, Greta Thunberg, managed to raise public awareness of the fight against climate change. Nevertheless, despite everything that the young people have achieved with their protest – it is not enough, “The climate crisis is getting worse,” as was declared in a call for a strike, “and is assuming devastating proportions”.

Even the smaller, more radical sister of Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion, does not see a sufficient reduction in global warming. It fears that humanity will die out if some serious changes are not made soon and if “climate justice” is not achieved.

It’s not going fast enough

Both organisations agree on the point that measures against climate change are neither taken consistently nor quickly enough. This is where the new environmental movements hardly differ from their predecessors. The historian, Joachim Radkau, sees few differences between the first activists of the 1970s and 1980s and those of today. In contrast to the anti-nuclear power movement of that time, which only pursued one specific goal, today’s climate movement has more extensive aspirations: less car traffic, ecological agriculture, only green electricity, less consumption – the range of their demands leaves out almost no area of life. Radkau thinks this is problematic: “It is an illusion to believe that everything can be changed at once.”

In view of the massive environmental problems worldwide, it seems astonishing how “young” the movement still is. The topic only began to become politically relevant around 50 years ago. In the 19th century there were, admittedly, a few groups who dedicated themselves to nature conservation and later in the Weimar Republic and in National Socialist Germany there were some who advocated the legal protection of, for example, certain bodies of water. The predecessor organisation of today’s NABU (the German Association for Nature Conservation), one of the most important environmental organisations in Germany, was founded in 1899. It wasn’t, however, until 1970, the European Year of Nature Conservation, with around 200,000 campaigns, that a broader environmental movement started. Shortly afterwards, the Friends of the Earth movement was founded in several European countries and in the USA. Studies such as The Limits to Growth – a report from the Club of Rome, a think-tank founded in 1968, sensitised many people to environmental problems with their gloomy forecasts.

The motto of Friends of the Earth was “Think Global – Act Local”. Many initiatives were launched under this guiding principle, most of which were dedicated to a specific goal. They resisted nuclear power, wanted to put an end to forest dieback or save the whales from extinction. For example, the Greenpeace organisation, founded in 1971, repeatedly attracted attention with spectacular campaigns, for example, in 1984 with a Europe-wide occupation of factory chimneys to protest against acid rain. But despite all the sensational campaigns and although the peace and anti-nuclear power movement had mobilised masses of people, nuclear power plants continued to be built in Germany – and in 1983 the Bundestag decided to deploy nuclear medium-range missiles in Germany.

Politics and activism

That is why, at the end of the 1970s, the activities of the peace and environmental movement increasingly shifted away from the streets and more towards political influence. Local environmental and peace parties came into being all over Germany. They were to become the forerunner of the Bündnis 90 / Die Grünen party, which has been represented in the Bundestag since 1983. Politically, the various movements could not simply be assigned to the left-wing political spectrum. The founding of Die Grünen (The Greens) in 1980 was spawned by an alliance of alternative groups under the leadership of the conservative environmentalist, Herbert Gruhl. The conservative wing, however, quickly lost its influence. At first it was not so much environmental goals that the Greens stood for – they were more the mouthpiece of the peace movement. It took a few more decades for the core issue of environmental protection to gain importance.

Today the Greens in Germany form the parliamentary arm of the climate protection movement, albeit with a strategy that is clearly oriented towards realpolitik. This is shown, for example, by the industry-friendly policy of the Green Minister-President, Winfried Kretschmann, in Baden-Wuerttemberg, a federal state that is heavily influenced by the automotive industry. The young climate movement takes exception to this – it accuses the party of not acting decisively enough to combat climate change. And this is what makes the relationship between the party and young activists so complicated. On the one hand, the climate strikes of Fridays for Future (FFF) may have contributed to the fact that the Greens were even ahead of the conservative CDU party in the polls for the first time in 2019. Many FFF members are also members of the Green party. On the other hand, both sides are irreconcilable, for example, in the case of the Dannenröder Forest in the state of Hesse, which is to be partially cleared for a new motorway. Fridays for Future fought to preserve the forest, however, the government of Hesse – a coalition between the CDU party and The Greens – had to implement the federal decision – and had the area forcefully cleared at the end of 2020. “When I walk through the Danni (nickname for the forest), everyone asks me when am I going to finally leave the party,” says Luisa Neubauer, a prominent face of FFF in Germany – and a member of the Greens.

FFF also repeatedly criticised the Greens in 2020 for being too vague in setting targets. Specifically – not aiming for a maximum warming of 1.5 degrees, but being willing to accept up to two degrees. In heated debates, the activists accused the politicians of half-heartedness, who, in turn, pointed out that as a party you have to make compromises and keep an eye on what is politically feasible. The result – at the Greens’ party convention at the end of 2020, the grassroots prevailed against the party leadership and adopted a basic programme that laid down a binding target of 1.5 degrees. Some activists actually want to run for the Greens in the Bundestag elections in 2021. At the same time, in several federal states new parties and groups of voters have emerged under the name Klimaliste (Climate List), who want to run as greener alternatives to the Greens in local and state elections – quite a few of them emerged from an involvement with FFF. In Baden-Wuerttemberg in March 2021, the FFF activist, Sandra Overlack, will take on the Green Minister-President, Winfried Kretschmann.

Top