Overline: Structural transformation
Headline: Arrested Transformation: Can Lusatia Make a Clean Break from Coal?

The coal phaseout in Lusatia has already been dragging on for three decades. In the face of delays to the promised structural transformation of the region, the out-migration of its young people, and local conflicts of interest, politicians now need to take action on two fronts. Financial investment alone will not be enough; the local population has to be involved in determining the direction its region is going to take. In a new publication IASS researchers analyse the obstacles to change and point to opportunities for democratically legitimised transformations.

The Socio-cultural Centre (SKZ) Telux in Weißwasser is an example of successful structural transformation. The former glass factory has been transformed into a multifaceted space that combines the old and the new.
The Socio-cultural Centre (SKZ) Telux in Weißwasser is an example of successful structural transformation. The former glass factory has been transformed into a multifaceted space that combines the old and the new. IASS/Sven Gatter

Coal-based economic development in Lusatia has been to the detriment of people and the environment. According to social scientists Jeremias Herberg, Konrad Gürtler and David Löw Beer, it was acceptable only because it brought a certain degree of prosperity and status to coal-industry employees and the region as a whole. Now that this system is collapsing, the population is unwilling to settle for promises of regional assistance. As the researchers write in the journal “Berliner Debatte Initial”, the coal phaseout is more than just an economic problem; it’s also about who has a say in decision-making processes and how the costs of the energy transition are distributed.

The coal dispute as an opportunity for democracy

The authors argue that the wrangling over the coal exit in Lusatia could be a test case for organising structural transformations along democratic lines. As lead author Jeremias Herberg points out, the lessons learned here could be applied to other transformation processes: “Any reorganisation of control over fossil resources affects the democratic fabric of a society. In this respect, the coal phaseout holds up a mirror to Germany’s economic and political system. At the latest with the transport and agricultural transitions, where even more is at stake, the material foundations of our economic system will be called into question in a dispute that has to be organised democratically.”

In their analysis, the authors urge decision-makers in Lusatia to remove the following four stumbling blocks to transformation by democratic means:

  • Social fragmentation: Local conflicts of interest are an obstacle to change. A democratically organised process of building bridges, restoring trust and making joint decisions is essential in a situation where different population groups are affected by the coal phaseout in very different ways.
  • Delayed economic transformation: In the period from 1989 to 2005 the number of people employed in the German coal industry fell from around 79,000 to 9,000. But the government only sat up and took notice when Vattenfall ceased its coal operations in Germany and when the Coal Commission finally presented a timeline for the coal phaseout in 2019. Political apathy prevented a more systematic and resolute implementation of the energy transition, and with each successive postponement the population’s fears of an uncertain future grew. This is why it’s so important that regional economic assistance bears fruit soon, and it must be accompanied by a deliberation process that involves all parts of society. At the end of this process the government needs to make binding decisions, since all the proposals made so far have only resulted in an opaque mishmash of solutions.
  • Demographic disempowerment: The last decades have seen out-migration from Lusatia and negligible in-migration. The few young people who have remained in the region are especially ambivalent about the coal phaseout. While the coal industry often plays an important role in their everyday lives, they don’t see any future in it. Women in particular are leaving Lusatia. Ethnic Sorbs and Wends have been disproportionately affected by resettlement after the clearance of villages to make room for new open-cast mines. And like other minorities, they have also been the victims of discriminatory attacks. In addition to social and political measures, the IASS researchers recommend an ideas contest as part of the deliberation process on the region’s future structural development. The people who live near mines need to have genuine opportunities to influence decision-making processes. Previous attempts at participation involved a lot of listening but provided too little scope for shaping policy.
  • Stifled civil society protests: Lusatia has a scattered but diverse civil society landscape, as evidenced in the protests against the Siemens plant closures in Görlitz. That said, the situation for civil society remains difficult, because village associations and community centres are often subsidised by the lignite-mining industry. Local communities are deeply divided. In the 2019 state elections, the AfD, a party that fails to see the ecological necessity of the coal exit, gained between 25 and 40 per cent of the vote in Lusatian constituencies. This highlights the urgent need for action, since the window of opportunity for a democratic structural transformation is narrow and may soon close shut.

How structural transformation can benefit from past experiences

In the authors’ view, regional structural transformation is hindered by inertia and path dependencies. They are also critical of what they see as the lip service paid to the concepts of “sustainability”, “civil society” and “participation” in the government’s draft legislation on the coal phaseout (as of September 2019). Failing to underpin this with concrete measures will only postpone real change and erode the significance and credibility of important concerns. For many people, their only hope is the prospect of a new major industry coming to the region, like the planned Tesla factory in the north of Lusatia. But this brings the risk of new dependencies and unintended target corridors. Meanwhile the opportunity for democratic renewal is lost.

For the authors, the local population’s involvement in formulating structural transformation policies is not only necessary but still possible at the present time. And the fact that Lusatia has already undergone a major structural transformation after German Reunification can be an advantage: “The population’s experience of change over decades is an important resource that will help it to learn from mistakes, maintain a high frustration threshold, and use its creativity to develop a positive vision of the region’s future,” says Herberg. Only when this succeeds will the case of delayed transformation become a blueprint for sociopolitical renewal.