Visualizing Extraction

Photographing a coal-fired power plant can convey its environmental impact — brownfields and runoff, black soot belching into the sky. But what about the people who work in the mine? Or their families?

An aerial image showing an enormous field carved into the earth, lit by diagonal sunlight on an otherwise cloudy day. The sky is grey and there are windmills on the horizon.
A view of the Garzweiler open pit surface mine in North Rhine-Westphalia. Over the last five decades, the mine’s expansion led to the demolition of 20 villages, and today six more are under threat. All photographs by Rocco Rorandelli.

How to represent the extraction of fossil fuels? Photographing a mine or an oil rig may give you a sense of direct environmental impact — brownfields and chemical runoff, black soot belching into the sky. But what about the people who work in the mine? Or their families? How to account for the financial exchanges that underwrite new infrastructure? Or state policies that suppress the growth of renewables? What about the multiple possible futures — short and long term — of a mining company? Or of a given tract of land?

The compromises of liberal realpolitik cannot be represented in a photograph.

Extraction, these questions suggest, is not a singular event but a nexus of contradictory processes with wide-reaching, often unintended consequences. Any attempt to represent these processes, or to predict their outcomes, will face problems of complexity and scale, as well as political dynamics that resist visual description. Expedience (or deferral), compromise, wishful thinking — these features of liberal realpolitik cannot be represented, certainly not in a single photograph. Neither can the forces of opposition that characterize politics beyond the state.

On July 8, 2022, Germany’s parliament passed the Energy Security Act, which allows the government to reactivate decommissioned coal-fired power plants — part of an effort to reduce consumption of Russian oil and natural gas. The law undercuts Germany’s plans, ratified by parliament late last year, to phase out coal power by 2030. It will almost certainly lead to an increase in the nation’s carbon emissions. 1

Coal mining has already transformed the landscapes of rural Germany. Huge open pits, some the size of cities, encroach on small farms and villages. The Garzweiler surface mine in North Rhine-Westphalia currently measures 3,200 hectares and is planned to grow to 11,400 hectares, or 44 square miles, in the coming years. The mine, owned by the German energy company RWE, has swallowed 20 villages since it opened in the 1960s, displacing tens of thousands of residents; now, six additional villages are slated for demolition and 1,500 residents are at risk of displacement. 2

In the background, a dozen tower bellowing clouds of smoke into a a grey sky. In the foreground a squat, nondescript brick building with a bared window and cobblestone drive.
Smokestacks from the Niederaussem Power Station seen from the village of Bergheim. Niederaussem, a lignite-fired power station owned by RWE, was ranked by the World Wildlife Federation as the second worst polluter of mercury in Europe.

There are other costs, too: people who live near the mine are prone to acute illnesses (including asthma and congestive heart failure) and constantly deal with noxious fumes and noise pollution. 3 All day and night, gargantuan machines called bucket-wheel excavators trawl the earth for lignite — a soft, combustible sediment sometimes referred to as brown coal. The material is carried away by a network of conveyer belts and burned to create steam. The process generates electricity for 40 percent of households in the region, and will likely account for more as natural gas is rationed in preparation for winter.

Germany’s reversal on coal reflects multiple political and economic contradictions. Despite a pledge to fully decarbonize its energy sector by 2045, the government has lagged in developing renewable energy sources, instead relying on imports of oil and gas. (In recent weeks, NATO has also dispensed with a plan to end financing for overseas fossil fuel projects. 4) And while there have been small cuts to municipal power usage — several German cities have chosen to cut off hot-water service in public buildings — electricity consumption by individuals and businesses shows little sign of abating. At least not yet. 5

Meanwhile, hundreds of environmentalists have taken up residence in depopulated towns around the Garzweiler mine, attempting to slow its growth with their own bodies, and to support villagers and farmers who want to remain in place. Many of the environmentalists are associated with Ende Gelände (“end of story”), a collective advocating civil disobedience around fossil-fuel infrastructure. The group’s name alludes to a cessation of business as usual — either through the irreversible damage triggered by continued extraction and burning of fossil fuels, or through an accelerated end to economies based in oil, coal, and natural gas. The activists see the latter as the only real option. They are speaking back to the politics of necessity (the German finance minister called the new law “painful but necessary”) through direct action and experiments in cooperative living. 6

A ramshackle multi-story construction made of wood and tarps and surrounded by trees.
A construction in the activists’ camp in Lützerath, in the German North Rhine-Westphalia state, coordinated by Ende Gelände. The town sits about 200 meters from the edge of the Garzweiler mine.

A woman with dark eyes wears stands outside a trailer covered with political posters. Around her are string lights, paper flowers, and fallen leaves. She wears a dark fleece jacket and holds her hand in her pocket and looks directly at the camera.
Sabina, an activist, standing outside a trailer in Lützerath, where she moved to protest the Garzweiler mine’s expansion.

Rocco Rorandelli has spent much of the past year traveling between Keyenberg, Erkelenz, and Lützerath — three of the six villages slated for demolition by the expanding Garzweiler mine. His photographs (with captions that include quotations and brief descriptions of local circumstances) tell a story of lives and environments transformed, communities disbanded while others assemble in their place.

We see Hulmut Kehrmann, one of almost a thousand displaced Keyenberg residents, seated on a bench in an empty house, face dappled in sunlight. The caption quotes him: “It’s difficult to leave behind your home,” he says. In another photo, a group of farmers, migrants from Romania, harvest beets beneath towering smokestacks. Then there are pictures of the mine itself, photographed from above in early morning. The floor of the open pit looks golden, but to its west, where the surface has been stripped again and again, debris piles up and the ground turns black. Striations of soil and stone appear along a great shelf of earth surrounding the mine. To the east, at the top of the shelf, is the world we know — a grid of farms, crops in perfect rows. Wind turbines are barely visible on the horizon.

The photographs are somber, at times morbid, in their portrayal of a pastoral environment being ruined.

Rorandelli invites the activists he meets (many are newcomers to the region) to discuss their impressions. Sabina, who recently moved to Lützerath, describes the occupation as a way of reconstructing a local world, perhaps generating lessons for others, elsewhere. “People congregate here,” she says. “They want to express their rage and disappointment … and try to build an alternative.” The recent arrivals have moved into vacated homes and, in the forests, into tree houses with systems of pulleys for food and supplies. At the edge of Lützerath, tents and trailers spill onto the road, adorned with flags, placards, a map of the planned mine expansion, and planters bearing the words alle dörfer bleiben: “all villages remain.”

A cobblestone road leads to the horizon through an open chainlink gate. Protest signs appear in the foreground. In the middle of the image two people are seated with their backs to the camera.
A view of the Rhineland from Lützerath.

This phrase has become a clarion for anti-mining groups throughout Germany, asserting a claim to communal existence in the face of violent enclosure and imminent global catastrophe. The slogan helps activists to imagine the mine as a space of “alternative future scenarios,” in Rorandelli’s words, “one where climate change can be stopped, and another where the consequences of today’s actions will have dramatic repercussions on humans and the environment.”

These scenarios are, of course, speculations — imagined, hoped for — and thus cannot be photographed. To evoke them is to acknowledge the insufficiency of photography as a medium for documenting extraction and related processes, big and small, of the past or for the future. The best one can do may be to identify a site of convergence, where extraction, political disagreement, and popular insurgency meet, and to go there, camera (and notebook) in hand.

Slideshow

The impossible task of depicting the full phenomenon that is extraction becomes an opportunity to witness some part of it, moving through a condemned Rhineland village and stopping to photograph a scene: a woman reading a book in the seat of her car; a couch left behind, exposed to the elements; friends looking at the horizon, the sky hazy with industrial exhaust. You could call this way of seeing journalistic, but the images also have an aesthetic quality — the photos are somber, at times morbid, in their portrayal of a pastoral environment being ruined. It might be better to say, simply, that Rorandelli’s photographs are exploratory, intensely engaged with a world undergoing radical change, reflective of the photographer’s place in the middle of things.

Notes
  1. Kate Connolly, “Germany to Reactivate Coal Power Plants as Russia Curbs Gas Flow,” The Guardian, July 8, 2022.
  2. Up to 35,000 people have been displaced due to lignite mining in North Rhine-Westphalia; more than 100,000 have been displaced nationwide. See Bogumil Terminksi, Development-Induced Displacement and Resettlement: Causes, Consequences, and Soico-Legal Context (Columbia University Press, 2015), 196-197. See also “Garzweiler coal mine: 20 villages swallowed, 6 more are set to disappear,” Deutsche Welle, October 3, 2020.
  3. Genon K. Jensen, et al., “Lignite Coal: Health Effects and Recommendations from the Health Sector” (pdf), HEAL Briefing (Health and Environmental Alliance, 2018).
  4. Alberto Nardelli, et al., “Germany Pushes for G-7 Reversal on Fossil Fuels in Climate Blow,” Bloomberg, June 25, 2022.
  5. Only sixteen percent of businesses plan to reduce production this winter, and Germany’s reserves are well below their targets. See Vanessa Dezem, et al., “Germany has Three Months to Save Itself From a Winter Gas Crisis,” Bloomberg, July 31, 2022.
  6. Connolly, “Germany to Reactivate Coal Power Plants as Russia Curbs Gas Flow.
Cite
Photographs by Rocco Rorandelli; text by Nicholas Gamso, “Visualizing Extraction,” Places Journal, September 2022. Accessed 03 Dec 2022. https://doi.org/10.22269/220915

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