After a week of skirmishes between scores of tree-occupying activists within the ancient Hambacher Forest and almost 4,000 police officers evicting them at the behest of the energy company RWE AG, the struggle has taken a tragic turn. L. Michael Buchsbaum reflects on the legacy of journalist Steffen Meyn.
On the afternoon of Wednesday, September 19th, activist-journalist Steffen Meyn fell to his death while covering police actions from one of the walkways erected high up in the canopy community of Beechtown.
The 27-year old from nearby Leverkusen had spent months embedded within the forest community following frequent visits over the years. Self-described as “Director, artist, journalist,” on his Twitter profile, he published on Youtube under “Vergissmeynnicht”, combining his name within the German word for the Forget-me-not flower.
Penned into media zones by the police on the forest floor away from the action, and growing increasingly frustrated with the way international mainstream reporters were covering the cat and mouse battles being fought above, he followed his combat-journalist instincts and decided to get closer to the story. “Now the press is here up in the trees,” he wrote in one of his last Tweets from up in Beechtown, we can “cover everything from above and inform the people about what’s happening here.”
Tragically, as police closed in on a group of treehouses, he took a wrong step and plummeted 20-meters down to the ground. As dozens of journalists watched on, police and medics took desperate measures to keep him alive. But while being rushed through the Hambach to a waiting helicopter, his strength failed.
Within minutes of Meyn’s fall, a silence mixed with the songs of birds and the cries of activists emanated from the forest. But for the first time in a week, the skirmishes and clearing actions stopped. During that time, the police had destroyed 39 of the 51 treehouses built by activists, clearing several more hectares of the forest in the process. Following hundreds of arrests and detentions, the clearing is the largest police action in the state’s history and has already cost taxpayers several million Euros.
But with the absurdity of a handful of tree-dwelling activists battling thousands of heavily armed police officers in a last-ditch attempt to prevent the destruction of the ancient forest being beamed into their living rooms nightly, average Germans were once again talking about the flagging Energiewende. Indeed, according to a survey by the Zeit Online, three out of four Germans reject the clearing of the Hambacher Forst and 73% want a coal exit by 2030 or earlier. This was in full evidence on Thursday morning, when after a moment of silent remembrance for Meyn, a group including the BUND and Greenpeace delivered 778.987 signatures to the North Rheine-Westphalia Environmental Minister, Ursula Heinen-Esser, pleading for a stop to RWE’s clearings and to preserve the Hambach.
Given Meyn’s commitment, it’s likely he and the other forest occupiers are also aware that the lignite-fueled power plants the neighboring mine feeds are some of the worst polluters throughout Europe. Infamously clustered at the top of the list of the 2015 study Lifting Europe’s Dark Cloud, published jointly by the European Environmental Bureau, Climate Action Network Europe, Sandbag, HEAL and the WWF are the nearby RWE-owned Weisweiler, Neurath and Niederaussen power plants, all visible from the treetops in the forest. Built mainly in the 1950s, the surrounding plants generate a combined 10,000 MW of electricity while belching out roughly 75 million tons of CO2 per year. Worse, according to health experts at the WWF and other institutions, their sulphur and nitrogen dioxide emissions combine in the upper atmosphere into “fine particulate matter” that worsen air quality, causing additional health problems that ultimately lead to over 1,000 premature deaths a year. Among all other firms, according to the study, RWE was also the single most polluting generation energy company.
Not just a German problem, “the way that these PM particles are formed means that they are transported hundreds of kilometers across national borders, impacting the health of people both within the country of production and further afield.” While RWE’s plants may be equipped with better emissions controls than others, particularly in Eastern Europe, “this is outweighed by the sheer volume of coal they burn.” When the study was published, two of the worst three polluting European plants and three of the top six were fed by coal from the Hambach area. In total, six out of the top 10 polluters lie in Germany (the others, Jänschwalde, Boxberg and Schwarze Pumpe, are in eastern Germany).
Ominously, buried deep beneath the Hambach lie at least 100 million tons of lignite, capable, according to some estimates, of generating another 95 billion kWh of electricity. In that sense, this struggle is only indirectly concerned with the preservation of the forest. At its core, this is about RWE versus climate protection. It’s about Germany missing its 2020 emissions goals and living up to the ideals of the Paris Climate Agreement. It’s about continuing to do business as usual. Shortly, it’s about an informed populace exercising energy democracy against a privileged few who benefit from maintaining a dead end for sustainability.
Emboldened by Meyn’s martyrdom, despite a pouring rain, some 10,000 protestors visited the Hambach the following weekend, providing supplies to the occupiers and helping build additional barricades and treehouses. Nevertheless, on Monday September 24, police resumed clearing actions.
Despite Meyn’s death, mounting public pressure, the refusal of rental companies to lend them cherry-pickers to remove the protestors, hacking attacks against their website and a sinking stock value, RWE remains determined to clear-cut the rest of the Hambacher forest beginning on Monday October 15.
What remains to be seen is what it will take for the Coal Commission in Berlin to act.
Rest in peace, Steffen Meyn. You will not be forgotten.