Subtitle: Imagination taking power

Dreaming of Eternity: three days in the Ruhr Valley

The Ruhr valley region in Germany is a fascinating metaphor of the fossil fuel age, a really thought-provoking taste of its legacy and what might come next.  The Ruhr is the largest urban area in Germany, and was one of Germany’s main coal-mining areas, the coal that powered the rapid expansion of the economy and the steel industry.  The late 18th century it was home to an initial industrial revolution, one powered by water.  As it grew, and needed more power, the region’s abundant coal reserves started to be extracted, and by 1850 there were 300 coal mines.

Some of the coal was turned into coke and used to fire the blast furnaces as the region’s steel industry began growing rapidly.  To meet demand, the mines spread and went deeper.  The demand for skilled mineworkers was such that many people moved to the region, mostly from Polish-speaking regions and, more recently, from Turkey.  Massive amount of coal were extracted.

Coal miners in the Ruhr Valley, 1940s. (Photo: Life Magazine).

In the 1950s and 60s, the region was a key driver in the extraordinary economic success story of Germany, seeing 9% growth rates.  By the 1970s however, the coal had peaked, and declined rapidly.  The steel industry also declined, undercut by cheaper imports from elsewhere.

Most of the pits are now closed, the final one closing next year.  The legacy is fascinating.  In the UK, most coal mining was beneath rural areas.  In the Ruhr, it took place beneath rapidly expanding urban areas, which brought its own particular challenges.  Coal extraction has meant that the surface level of the area is between 10 and 20 metres lower than it would otherwise be in many places.  The area now requires a huge system of pumps without which whole towns and cities would be flooded.  Without the pumps, 3.5 million people would be affected.

The ‘Swiss cheese’ created by the 50,000 tunnels beneath the region also have a big legacy.  The whole landscape of homes, roads, bridges and so on is constantly moving and settling.  Bridges sink and so, regularly, the roads beneath them need to be lowered.  Houses can, very occasionally, become uninhabitable, or even sink into the ground.  Farmland becomes unusable.  The environmental legacy of toxicity and pollution also means that much of the ground is too toxic for growing on, and great care has to be taken during, for example, development projects.

Then there is the social legacy.  The region has had its issues coming to terms with the end of mining, the prestige and status is conferred, and the loss of work.  It has also led to tensions within the communities that remain, in particular in relation to the immigrant communities there.  There are higher than average rates of depression, cancer, heart disease.

Many of these challenges are what are called ‘eternity’ issues.  Funds have had to be set aside, for eternity (which is quite a long time), to stabilise the landscape, to stop the mines filling with water, deal with ongoing infrastructure challenges and so on.  I found myself thinking, on the 3 days I just spent there, what a powerful metaphor it was for the fossil fuel age as a whole.  Had the people at the beginning, when coal extraction first began, been able to know what the long term impacts would be, what the ‘eternity’ costs would be, how it would shape the future the place was then able to build on top of the tailings of 200 years of coal extraction, would they have bothered?

Some will, no doubt, argue, that from where Germany, and the Ruhr, were before coal production began, of course it’s been a good move.  The region, the nation, are now far more prosperous, technologically advanced, and able to adapt and evolve.  But that assumes that the current conditions will continue.  Interruptions in energy supply to the region would be disastrous, as would steep rises in the costs of keeping the pumps running.  If the mines flood, then the salt and other contaminants rise and enter the region’s aquifers, its source of drinking water.  Future generations may well come to ask whether it was all worth it.

We must not forget though, the great social advances that coal mining brought about.  Miners were not just at the literal coalface, but also at the metaphorical coalface of the fight for workers’ rights.  As Amitav Ghosh argues in ‘The Great Derangement’:

“It could even be argued that miners, and therefore the economy of coal itself, were largely responsible for the unprecedented expansion of democratic rights that occurred in the West between 1870 and the First World War”;

Oil could be extracted with pumps and pipelines, and relatively few people.  Coal needs a lot of hands, and moving it around creates what Timothy Mitchell in ‘Carbon Democracy’ describes as “multiple choke points where organised labour can exert pressure on corporations and the state”.  We owe the miners a great deal.

Anyway, I was in the Ruhr at the invitation of various Transition groups and to attend the German Transition conference.  My host was Reiner Kaufmann, a local artist and networker par excellence, whose ‘Yellow House’ gallery and workshop provides a base for local Transition groups and related project.  He’s a remarkable connector, a ‘maven’, someone whose power to bring diverse people into a room together has led to many initiatives and projects.

On the first day we visited, in the company of Transition folks, members of the local council team and others, different projects that gave a sense of what’s happening in the area.  The first was Grundschule Pantrings Hof, a primary school in Herne.  Twenty years ago the school created a nature garden on a paddock next to the school.  A group of kids from the school had prepared a tour for us, each of them having a place in the garden they had prepared a short presentation about.  It is now like a small woodland, with many trees and shrubs as well as open areas, a bark mulch path running through it.

Hearing the sad tale of the disappearing courgettes.

We were introduced to the pond which contained lots of different wildlife and a stone wall built as a habitat for different reptile. After a project in which the students were asked to find a stick in the garden and then paint it to look like a snake, the wall is adorned with brightly coloured wooden ‘snakes’.  One girl showed us their courgette patch and bemoaned the fact that the slugs ate all their courgettes.  As a gardener myself who is often victim to the predations of these voracious molluscs, I commiserated with her.

Spot the snakes… Photo: Jürgen Klute, Creative Commons License CC BY-NC.

We were shown the trees they have planted, their ‘herb spiral’, the raised bed in which they are growing kohl rabi, cabbages and other vegetables, and the bird box they built, painted, and then put in the tree and was already home to birds.  They also showed us a tipi they built using poles from the garden, and a sensory project, a strip of rectangles, defined by round poles on the ground, each one filled with different things, each of which gave a different sensation when walked on with bare feet: gravel, beech nut cones, sticks, sand, leaves and wine bottle corks.

They were clearly very proud of the garden.  They also showed us their ‘bee hotel’, built to attract particular rare kinds of bees and other insects.  Their teacher told us that the garden was the main reason he applied to work at the school.

After the tour we chatted to the school’s head teacher.  She told us that the school is currently in the process of getting beehives on the grounds.  They also want to build a new ‘green classroom’ which blurs the edge between the school and the garden.  I asked whether the garden is just something the kids visit occasionally, or whether it is somehow something that is utilized across the curriculum.

She told us that the garden is used as a tool in every subject.  “If, in maths, we want to teach them to calculate circumference, we send them out to calculate the circumference of a tree.  In German lessons, they write essays about the garden.  If some students feel they need quiet and focus in order to be able to write, they can come and sit in the garden and work.  During their art classes they spend a lot of time here in the garden drawing.  Every subject they study makes as much use of the garden as it can”.  It’s a brilliant approach yet still, sadly, a rare one elsewhere.

Photo: Jürgen Klute, Creative Commons License CC BY-NC.

We then go to visit one of the main features of the area, Halde Hoheward, a huge man-made hill visible from many places in the region.  In the UK mining industry, miners were able to leave coal on the floor and ceiling in otherwise worked-out seams.  In Germany, legislation demanded that they had to remove all the coal as well as a few metres of rock, so as to minimize the risk of subsequent fires.  This meant massive amount of rock were extracted and had to be put somewhere, but rocks which could leach toxic materials.

Halde Hoheward was huge, built up, over years, of this rock spoil from the mines.  It is now mostly covered in trees, and is a hugely popular destination for walkers, cyclists and runners, with spectacular views from the top across the region.  It had to be built carefully onto a pad of rammed clay to stop any leachates getting into the groundwater.  A concrete channel around the hill directs most of the rainwater off the hill so as to minimize the risk of it getting into the soil.

Views from the top of Halde Hoheward.

The view from the top was amazing, offering a taste of the fascinating contrasts of the region.  It is a heavily industrialised area, with power plants, a large incinerator, different factories, abandoned steel plants, but also lots of wind turbines, and large forested areas.

One of the other challenges facing the area is waste water.  Between its two large rivers, they have a 150km long channel, originally a river, which carries raw sewage away to a distant processing plant.  Literally a straight channel full of shit, running though the city.  Pretty grim.  Managing it is a big challenge for the co-op that manages water and wastewater in the region.  Two people from the co-op showed us some of their key sites.

A channel of raw sewage heads out of the city. Soon this will disappear.

They are just about to embark on a huge project to sort it all out.  The plan is to dig a tunnel under the bank on one side of the river which will become a pipe for the sewage, allowing the river to become a river once again.  It is going to cost billions of euros, and is a huge engineering feat.  We also visited one of their old waste water treatment sites which they are trying to figure out a future for.

Mosaic on this vessel for extracting gas from sewage sludge tells the tale of key worker strikes in the region.

We visited an event organised by the OffArt Parliament in Willy Brandt Haus in Recklinghausen, a group exploring the role of art in social change, and gave a short off-the-cuff talk, before heading to the Yellow House, for an evening meal for local Transition folk and others, very enjoyable.

Photo: Jürgen Klute, Creative Commons License CC BY-NC.

Next day was the Transition conference, held at the Bürgerhaus Oststadt in Essen (literally ‘peoples’ house’.  Essen was European Capital of Culture in 2010, and this year is the European Green Capital, which has led to many new initiatives in the city.  The Bürgerhaus was a great venue.  There was a very impressive turnout.  We arrived with the first workshops already underway, a good opportunity to settle in and meet some people.  After the break I went to a workshop with many of the people I had had the tour with the day before, to reflect on learnings from it.

Bürgerhaus Oststadt in Essen

Photo: Gesa Maschkowski.

In the afternoon I went to Nenad Maljković’s workshop about REconomy and the work of the international REconomy group to build an ‘ecosystem’ of REconomy practitioners.  The meeting was joined, virtually, by Jay Tompt from the REconomy Centre in Totnes, as well as Anhaí Martinez from Mexico and Giorgos Theodorakis from Greece.  It was a fascinating session with lots of working in pairs and inspiring possibilities.

Jay Tompt, live and direct from Totnes…

The rest of the afternoon included lots of meeting with people and a ‘Marketplace of Possibilities’, a lovely format, like World Café, where people with different projects sat at tables so people could go and chat with them.  Not much use to me as I don’t speak German so couldn’t even understand what the projects were, but it was a great format.

The Marketplace of Possibilities.
The German Transition Hub celebrate signing their MOU to become an official Transition Hub. Photo: Gesa Maschkowski.


Relaxing ouside. Photo: Gesa Maschkowski.

In the evening was my talk, which was good fun.  Lots of people came who weren’t part of the conference, as well as many of those who had been around for the day.  It was introduced by Simone Raskob, the local minister responsible for the European Green Capital programme, who I had met at an event in the city the previous year.

There was a nice format after the talk, based on the Fishbowl approach, where anyone who wanted could come up and sit in one of the 4 chairs next to mine, and either give a reflection or comment, or ask a question.  I spoke in English, with Gesa Maschkowski giving a summary at 3 intervals during the talk, first time I’ve had that.  It all worked really nicely.

‘Introduce yourself to the person next to you’ … just before I started my talk.

It was late by the time I was able to leave, after lots of conversations with people, questions, selfies and a beer or two, including some rather nice local apple wine.  A very enjoyable evening.

Me giving my closing talk at the conference. Photo: Gesa Maschkowski.

The last day was spent at the Yellow House, sharing thoughts with Reiner, going to visit his son’s amazing workshop in Duisburg, and seeing the world’s biggest ever sandcastle there, which, at 16.6 metres, will now appear in the Guinness Book of Records.  Pretty amazing.

The world’s biggest sandcastle, ever.

It was a couple of days that offered a powerful juxtaposition.  The vibrant networks of community projects that are working so hard to design and imagine a post-fossil fuel world, alongside the impacts of 200 years of fossil fuel extraction.  Walking around the now abandoned blast furnaces of Duisburg, now a very popular public park, you get a clear sense of the incredible pride the region felt at being the people who had uplifted a nation, driven it forward, through its ingenuity and its sweat.

The former blast furnaces of Duisberg.

It reminds me of a track on Public Service Broadcasting’s new album ‘Every Valley’, about the rise and fall of Welsh mining.

The track ‘Every Valley’ (see above) contains the following passage from an old documentary:

“Every little boy’s ambition in my valley was to become a miner.  There was the arrogant strut of the lords of the coalface, they’d stand on street corners and watch the posh people pass with hostile eyes, insulting with these cold looks, because they were the kings of the underworld”.

We now know of the ruinous legacy the fossil fuel age has left us with, but let us not forget the pride, courage and industry that created it.  The question I left the Ruhr with is how, in imagining and creating a new future, we might tap into that same sense of purpose, pride and dedication, and create a sense of identity and community that coal did.  The creation of the industrial revolution was a remarkable work of the imagination.  What comes next needs to be even more so.

My thanks to Reiner, Michael, Jurgen, Ute, Matthias, Gesa and everyone else.  


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