What’s Eating Germany

How a quiet addiction to filthy brown coal is imperiling entire villages
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Régis Bossu/Sygma/Corbis

Klaus Zischke looks out over his backyard goldfish pond—the one he and his wife, both 70, built years ago—and he knows its days are numbered. Really, the end is near for his entire village, an 850-year-old hamlet nestled in the flatlands just outside Cologne.

In a process being played out across Germany, Zischke and his neighbors will soon be relocated so that a dozen of the world’s largest digging machines can begin chewing up the brown coal that lies just below those goldfish and extends more than 1,000 feet down. Despite its reputation as a world leader in solar- and wind-power technologies (16 percent of its electricity comes from renewable sources), Germany also has a dirty secret. It is highly dependent on lignite, so-called brown coal, which is one of the filthiest fuels known to mankind, emitting 27 percent more carbon dioxide to produce the same amount of electricity as regular black coal. The country mines some 180 million metric tons of the stuff every year—slightly more than China and the United States combined—and is home to six of the 10 most polluting power plants in Europe. “On the one hand, Germany looks quite progressive, but if you take a closer look, it’s another story,” says Anike Peters, of Greenpeace Germany.

While Germany’s reliance on brown coal may run counter to its efforts to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by 40 percent of 1990 levels in the next decade, the abundance of lignite is tough to ignore. The country sits on about 77 billion metric tons of brown coal. Which means that compared with importing natural gas from Russia, or oil from Saudi Arabia, or hard coal from the far-flung ends of the planet, mining lignite is cheap—even if does involve pulverizing a village now and then.

Today near Cologne, three mammoth strip mines continue their encroachment into the Continent’s most densely populated region. Already, over the past 60 years, some 35,000 people from more than 100 villages in the area have been relocated. The hunt for brown coal is even more menacing in the eastern part of the country, where tens of thousands of Germans from nearly 250 villages have been displaced. “It’s like something out of China,” says Dirk Jansen of the environmental group BUND. “Some people have been moved two or three times. Even the dead are dug up and moved.”

The Zischkes figure they have between three and five years before they’ll be forced to leave home, but already the mining operation that dooms their village has appeared on the horizon, spreading out across 20 square miles and resembling a lunar landscape plopped down in the middle of central Europe. Less than two miles from the couple’s back window, in a giant hole, sit enormous machines that crawl along on supersized tank treads. At 315 feet tall and 740 feet long, the 32-million-pound excavators have the distinction of being the largest terrestrial vehicles on the planet. Capable of moving some 8.5 million cubic feet of earth a day, they make the NASA space-shuttle transporter seem like a Tonka toy. Reaching out from the center of these behemoths are long booms with clawed buckets, each one big enough to swallow a minivan. They dig at the earth, depositing their peaty brown payload onto conveyor belts that link up with industrial railcars, which carry the coal to nearby power plants. The machines operate 24 hours a day and make for particularly eerie viewing when lit up at night.

Between them, the Zischkes have endured more than a dozen war-related relocations since 1940. They hope this move will be their last. Villagers have selected an empty field a few miles away as their future home. Plans call for the current village, including the Zischkes’ little backyard pond, to eventually become part of a 15-square-mile lake—one of Germany’s largest—that will be fed, over a period of decades, by water diverted from the Rhine. The village is already becoming a ghost town, with some neighbors leaving early. Those who remain wonder how much effort to put into their homes and gardens. “The worst part is the feeling of powerlessness,” Klaus says. “The system is so much bigger than us.”

Andrew D. Blechman, the author of Leisureville: Adventures in a World Without Children, lives in Massachusetts and Düsseldorf, Germany.
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