PHOTOGRAPHY LETZTE GENERATION @letztegeneration
NELE FISCHER SIBYLLE FENDT @sibyllefendt TENZIN HEATHERBELL @tenzinheatherbell
INTERVIEW JESPER GUDBERGSEN @yessirjesper
Hi Zoe, how are you?
I’m good. It’s quite cold here in Berlin though. How are you?
The New York winter is unseasonably warm actually, so I am comfortable, but concerned about that of course… The climate crisis is creeping into our conversation right off the bat!
Zoe, I wanted to start from the very beginning. I’d like to hear about the start of Letzte Generation, and also hear when you entered the picture ?
The Letzte Generation that everyone is familiar with now originated with a hunger strike that took place before the parliamentary elections in Germany (in September 2021) As I was reading about it, It really threw me into a kind of a moral dilemma. I could understand why these people were doing this, but I also didn’t want to realize that I could be that person also, how I could relate to them. I was asking myself why I thought this felt wrong, I felt like they didn’t have to do this, but also found myself struggling with the fact that I was judging the situation. I was conflicted by people putting themselves in such a dangerous place I then started following the people around the conversation. I heard their arguments, and got to know the thinking behind everything. I understood this idea of how we need to interrupt our everyday life as non-violently as possible, but also as effectively as possible. I started taking part last January, so about a year ago, pretty much exactly when the first blockade happened in January of ‘22. Ever since then, I’ve been sitting and gluing myself to the street and I’ve been to prison for a few days, but I also do a lot of things around the actual happenings, such as giving talks and training other people right now.
You’ve been lumped together with a lot of other protest groups in Europe in the last year, such as Just Stop Oil and their protests at art museums. Can you tell me what some of your protests are like – in your own words?
We do generally quite diverse things in terms of trying to disrupt and draw attention to the crisis we’re in, and the main strategy that we use are these street blockades I just mentioned before, but we’ve also been throwing mashed potatoes on paintings in museums – kind of like the equivalent to the tomato soup in Great Britain. We’ve been disrupting sports events – soccer and badminton games, car races, things like that… Protesting at and blockading airports. We’ve also been stopping oil pipelines, turning them off. Basically once a week, we do some creative actions in front of the Parliament, such as throwing oil at it, having unannounced demonstrations, and we’ve even been “drilling for oil” in front of the Parliament, as a commentary on the continuing oil crisis here in Europe. We have a lot of court cases now, and there is a lot to do in the sense of supporting our activists and addressing the court – or addressing the law and its responsibility in the situation. So I personally have been taking care of a lot of the legal side of things now.
Do you have a background in law practice? Are you still in school?
I’m almost done with my Bachelor of Arts – I study Liberal Arts and Sciences in Freiburg, although my studies are on pause at the moment. Right now I’m writing my bachelor thesis as well. but I’ve never studied anything connected to law. I’m sort of self educated. There are quite a lot of people in Germany who are very involved in this thinking actually. We live in a quite repressive system, but we can take power through understanding the system, and therefore also, for example, defending ourselves in the courtroom
That’s very admirable. I guess that’s often how it works in these grassroots organizations, right? You kind of end up doing something new through your interest in participating and learning about a certain subject.
Or: simply through having to do so, having to deal with it.
Is your family supportive of this work?
Overall, I would say they are, but it’s been a long process to get there. They understand why I feel like we’re in this situation. What we do in Letzte Generation is one of the last resorts to have our government understand that they have the responsibility to protect their citizens and support them. I think my dad has always been very supportive of the activist thinking; while we do have politicians, we also need certain people who give a voice to the people and put pressure on the government. My mom has been, and still is, very scared of what this means for me in the future. When she hears there are blockades happening, she knows I’m going to be sat in the street for 2 hours, so naturally she’s very concerned and worried about my safety.
What you’re doing is very physical. It’s literally putting your body in the way of harm. So of course there’s a scary element to that…
So that’s been a big reason that some fights were happening between my mom and I, she’s struggling to understand why her daughter feels like she has to be a part of this With Letzte Generation we’ve been through different episodes of negative backlashes, so when the heat has been on us, she is also concerned that I am hurting on another level.
I wanted to talk about this more actually, so let’s go there: The movement has been described as counterproductive, and having something like a juvenile approach at times. How do you describe your choices of actions and what would your response be to this and other criticism?
I think there are multiple points to this. One point is, first of all, that it’s not a randomly chosen idea to sit on the street to block cars, to block highways. There was a big process of learning from the last years of the climate justice movement, with Extinction Rebellion and Fridays For Future and many others before us, who all did great work for this movement. But in studying this, we also realized that we have obviously met a limit, they cannot increase their pressure and we haven’t seen the changes that we need to see in the timeframe that we still have left. So that’s partly why we’ve received a lot of criticism: people are asking why we won’t just do legal demonstrations in front of the Parliament like the others, and my stance on this is yes; these are important things, I only wish that this would be enough! In Germany right now, we obviously have a political system that functions democratically. It is our democratic right to protest. But this simple idea that you do a legal demonstration in the street, the politicians listen to you and they act – this mechanism simply does not seem to function. The way the system works right now, they are focused only on taking care of the ‘right now’, current issues that hinder the everyday here and now. What we need to do right now is to create an issue, we need to create something that cannot be ignored by the politicians. My second point, or speaking of the criticism that we are hurting the movement – that people are turning against climate protection because of our blockades… I would put out the question myself, whether people are really turning against the idea that we need urgent climate protection, just because the action we’re doing is not in their favor?Think about it – really, that’s what we want you to do, sit down and think about what this is about: You’ve been stuck in traffic for half an hour. Compare that to how stuck you are going to be in 2 or 3 years!!
Yeah, absolutely. I’ve had my own doubts about these types of protests – how much is throwing soup at a painting really gonna change people’s minds, and what does this action really have to do with the issue at hand – the climate crisis?
But what you guys are doing is something that actually makes people talk. If you call the government and say, “we’re gonna show up at your door on Friday at 3.30pm and have a protest with this many people…” So what? The media is not going to pick up on that. It’s not a happening in the same way as what you guys are doing I also understand that it must come from a point of frustration. You are not satisfied with the way that protests are operating, or are being covered in the press. So to me, it’s not necessarily that you want to do these extreme things.
It seems to me like you have to.
I mean it’s not fun. It’s not fun to sit in the middle of a busy street. It’s not fun to go out there and know that at the end of the day, you’re gonna end up in a prison cell, and you might stay overnight.
And do you feel like this strategy has worked ?
I’ve been talking to journalists about this quite a lot. The way we work is this: We put pressure on the government by creating an issue, we draw attention to ourselves and through that, the topic receives attention in the media.. We wouldn’t have to do this if news coverage would take on the topic itself in the first place. For instance, this past summer saw a lot of wildfires across Germany, but somehow it was barely discussed in the media that this was a direct result of the globe heating up rapidly, it was a problem caused by climate change. It’s a matter of making people understand that the climate crisis is a current issue. It’s not gonna happen in 100 years, it’s already happening everywhere, we already feel the consequences. If news coverage would treat this as the reality it is, we wouldn’t have to disrupt anything, because then we would already have our hands on solving the issues. I think a really big problem in the conversation is that people are thinking this will happen to the next generation, this is gonna happen to my grandchildren, do I really need to care?
No, no, no, no! It’s happening right now.
Do you feel like there’s other groups around Europe or worldwide that you have a kinship with? Do you work with other groups to get your message out there or talk about strategy?
Yes, specifically the A 22 network, a network that was founded on April 22 last year, which includes a number of organizations, who we exchange knowledge with. But we also all do our own thing. The point is that the climate crisis is a global issue, and we need everyone’s countries to get started on developing strategies to prevent further tipping points and to start developing ways to deal with it. Right now we’re still in a situation where we have the possibility to create, and we have the capacity of deciding how we want to deal with the consequences of the crisis. What kind of society do we want to live in? It’s a very fast changing world and it’s not going to get any nicer for the human mind. But what kind of society do we want to be? In what kind of democratic system do we want to live, ones that support each other? I think that’s why this connection to other movements, and also the aim to spread out, is very important to us. Everyone still needs to do their own thing locally, but global acting also means starting where you are.
On that note a little bit, tell me a bit more about what the situation is like in Germany. Do you feel like there’s enough education around these issues in school, is that something that you’re working on?
Yeah, we do a lot of that. I guess you can call it ‘educational work’ in the sense that we go into a lot of different neighborhoods and work with community centers, and we’re getting invited more frequently to schools and also to talk shows. In these instances, we usually take on the role of saying: Hey, It’s a really bad situation! Most climate scientists are saying we have only 2 years left to actively shape the way we want to reduce our co2 emissions. This is the way we can prevent further tipping points from happening. This is the situation. So what are our democratic ways to put pressure on the governments? We need to, because here in Germany, learning about these things really depends on the school you’re in and it depends on what news you’re reading. What you learn in most schools is definitely not sufficient. I don’t think enough people leave school understanding what climate science is, how it is connected to your everyday life, and how you have a responsibility to your generation, to future generations to kind of find your own part in dealing with it.
That’s another goal, I would imagine, of your group – educating people about what these issues are really about?
Yeah, it’s simple things that make all the difference and I do see things shifting a bit here. For instance, the media in Germany has started to change the wording from climate change to climate crisis. Of course the climate is indeed changing, but what is more relatable is that this develops a crisis for humanity We always talk about the climate crisis, myself included, in this context: we need to protect the “climate” Yes, this is true, but in the end it’s not just about the climate. It’s about humans. The climate is going to keep existing, the climate is just whatever it is. The question is whether we are able to cope and live in it.
What are your main points of concern in Letzte Generation?
Right now, we’re mainly focusing on a few simple first steps that our Government could take that would not cost any money, but would save lives. We’re talking about a speed limit of 100 km an hour (around 62mph) for instance. Germany is one of the last few countries that doesn’t enforce a speed limit on highways. Just a few weeks back, a study came out that states even more CO2 emissions would be saved than we previously imagined, just by instating this simple law. It’s not such a big step, it wouldn’t cost any money and it would save lives on multiple levels, not even just from a climate perspective! We also need to take steps towards free public transportation, something that is becoming increasingly expensive here in Germany. Lastly we are also urgently requesting a so-called citizens’ assembly, which has been in place in several countries like in France, for example. I think it’s just very important to start forming a democracy that is able to react fast. And we’re adding issues that are concerns for a majority of citizens, hoping that through this process we can unify and it will result in fast proposals. What we’ve been seeing these last few years is that governments are promising that they would take the notes from the people into consideration, but in the end, nothing really happens.
Isn’t that always the problem with government? The issues just sit on the table for the longest time because it has to go through so many hoops
I think something like a citizens assembly would allow the government to realize that’s not a partisan issue – it’s not coming from a left-leaning political candidate. It’s coming from the people all across the spectrum – a 10-year old, a 70-year old. People who have 10 cars, but also people who bike to work or school every day.. We can all relate to each other when it comes to our common future, whether you are a hippie who never sits down in a car, or if you are someone who is forced to fly around for work multiple times a month. We can all agree that we need to reduce traffic speeds or change how we produce our foods.
So on that note of the diversity of this movement where are the people in your group coming from – what does your group look like at the moment ?
Yeah, I think that is for me – that’s one of the most powerful parts of this movement, because sometimes people think it’s only young students, but in fact I’ve mainly been sitting in blockades with people in their fifties Now we are starting to see people who are 14-15, which makes me a bit sad; high school students with an urge of having to act now and having to make these step – when I think actually it would have to be me and older people. I feel like we have more of a responsibility for the way things currently look. It is quite diverse in terms of age, for sure, but also in terms of background – people are college-educated, blue collar – we even have car factory workers sitting on the highway with us. One thing that is difficult is the organizing of who actually can do the protests on the street. It’s a very direct action and you are in the way of moving cars and we are always confronted by the police, so the people who take part in those particular protests are only people who feel safe interacting with the police. We generally have less people who tend to have discriminating treatment by police.
It’s a sad truth, but of course it’s very important to keep your group members safe. In a backwards way it’s almost a kind of privilege to be able to sit there and face that danger.
It’s definitely a privilege, considering the possible aftermath. We are of course hoping that when we go to court in the future, the result will be that our sit-ins are seen as justified, and incarceration won’t be an issue. I believe the Supreme Court in Great Britain actually just ruled in favor of things like sit-ins, so we hope it moves in that direction for us as well. But yes, it is very much a privilege to do this, that’s also why I feel like this is my responsibility. I am a young female, educated, white person in a country like Germany. I know my family is not going to be harmed if I do something like this, and there are people who do not have safe residency status in Germany who cannot participate in something like this.
It’s a privilege that comes with a lot of responsibility. I’m glad that you have the approach that you do. Besides the organizations you’ve mentioned that you are connected with, are there other activists or activist groups that you look up to or take inspiration from?
Hmm, I think for me, seeing as I’m a cultural history student as well, it’s often about looking back in the sense of learning how movements have happened, how important the non violent aspect and certain disruption aspects in these campaigns are. I feel like whoever I meet in whichever kind of movement, a person who thinks about how they can contribute to changing our society and adapt with that – this is already someone I look up to. I can totally relate to people who have their everyday life with work and everything else life entails, but who choose to also dedicate time to an important global cause. Life is nice if you don’t constantly think about the climate crisis, you know?
So I feel like my inspiration is not necessarily an explicit movement necessarily, instead it is generally when people have the courage to step out of their everyday life, and out of the comfort that we somehow can still feel, which is all a bit absurd…
As the group is growing in numbers, how do you keep the group organized and focused on the things you’re trying to bring attention to? How do you keep the community aligned?
I would say it’s a very strong community. Of course I don’t know everyone anymore, because we are not only 30 people anymore, but we are between 800 and 1,000 people by now. We are generally organized in a functional hierarchy. We now have a strategy team that teaches other people who go into the different regions in Germany. We are increasingly decentralized, the more people are added. But we are very interconnected, all across Germany we have quite a lot of activists who are doing this as their full time job and are a constant force to check in with for their relative communities. Also, I do think that the reason why people are involved in the first place, that can be enough to keep people on track. I would say that the issue in climate activism is about taking breaks, and allowing yourself to take the pressure off. Your mind is constantly flooded with the thought of this limited time frame we have, we can only do as much as is in our power, so it’s quite hard to give yourself those breaks..
Right? I’ve been thinking a lot about that: reaching a sort of point where you can live sustainably while also having these issues as priorities in your life.
You need to also be sustainable with yourself, and not fall into the trap of being overwhelmed and overpowered. It’s important to sit down with yourself and evaluate. Take a minute to also find joy and positivity, and seek out the positive news that is happening in the world. I guess that’s what we try to do with Submission; we try to involve our community and talk about these things and try to find a positive spin on things when possible. It’s easier to bring people in when you’re not talking at them when you’re speaking with them. To find a bright side of things – I find that’s very important, and that comes when you also focus on other things in your life.
Or I would say, that in terms of what gives people energy, hope and power, it’s the coming together, seeing that other people are finding the courage. You’re not alone. You’re not the only person who sits at home or feels like they’re running against walls, because people don’t want to realize that we are in a fucking crazy situation. We all see that the climate is changing. It’s just the question whether we want to realize that it’s not gonna stop happening. It’s only going to get more extreme, and it’s gonna be harder and harder to deal with the multiple crises that will open up. But this coming together helps, we are saying, “okay, I do the amount that I can do as a democratic citizen. It is my right to protest, and it’s my right to ask my government to please protect our rights” In Germany our government has, according to the general law, some responsibility of protecting our and all future generations and the base for their life.
I feel like there’s this common misconception that people who are politically minded, that activists and protesters always are looking at the negativity in the world and trying to point out all the flaws. I wanted to ask you, not speaking for the whole group, but for yourself: What is a moment where you find beauty in the world, and where you find the positive to help you along?
I spend my time between Berlin where I am now, and Freiburg, which is right at the entrance to the Black Forest of Germany. And just being there… This piece of the world actually exists, and the world is just there, and it stays – whatever we do. It’s a bit intimidating, but it’s also just beautiful, because we have such a reliable ground in which we can put our seeds and which feeds us. And it is beautiful, and it is so diverse wherever you go
I wanted to ask you if there was ever a time in this past year working with the group that you found yourself questioning whether your approach was the right one, or you saw someone who is based within the group doing something you thought was too extreme or too much… Has there ever been that kind of moment, where you weren’t sure about what you guys were doing?
I constantly question whether this is the right way of doing it, and there are moments where I’m very convinced, and where I feel this is exactly the point where I want to be. And then there are the moments where I question whether – first of all – anything is ever going to change and secondly whether this is something that’s really gonna lead us where we want to be. Our role as a protest movement is not really to define policies, it’s mainly to act as a protesting force, pretty much… I don’t think there’s ever been a point where I thought someone did something too extreme, because we have a very strict consensus in terms of what is okay and what is not okay, and one of the most important values of myself and everyone who is involved in this group is non-violence. And that we’re using the lowest impact, in terms of efficiency. So if there was a way to disrupt everyday life that wouldn’t prevent so many people from driving to work, we would do it. But this is the simplest, easiest, and most efficient way of doing it – with the sheer amount of people that we have with us.
And it hits home too, because stopping traffic touches on a matter that is on people’s minds – the European Energy Crisis…
Yeah, this is something we’re more focused on right now. You and I have been talking mostly about the energy crisis, and an example of our proposals is that the first simple steps would be to simply exit all new oil and gas infrastructure. It’s been interesting in Germany because we had this big scare that we weren’t going to have any heat all winter here – our gas reserves had run out, so the German government panicked and went out and bought way too much – which in turn influenced the world market and made things worse abroad. It’s just crazy… They appear to want to employ a sustainable way of dealing with energy, but as soon as they fear something could be different or difficult, they resort back to sticking with what we have relied on for the last century. It was a total overreaction, in completely the wrong direction.
I’d like to end on the note of where Letzte Generation is thinking about moving the conversation next. What are some of the goals that you want to try and achieve in ‘23?
In Germany, our goal is to increase the pressure nationwide. We’re going to move away from Berlin as the main city and are going to spread our protest to all of Germany. Right now we are talking to people on the street in the villages, we are going to the south of Germany, where there is generally not so much talk of changing policies. We’re going to start addressing different actors in a different way, and the numbers that we’re seeing of people who are getting involved in the different parts of Germany mean that we’re going to start protesting not only in Berlin and in a few big cities, but wherever there is a street and wherever they are people who don’t think our government is taking on enough responsibility right now.
That’s really amazing. Historically, people who are at the forefront of trying to change things tend to get together in the bigger cities and leave where they came from. It feels so important to bring this conversation outside of the urban environment…
Is there anything else that you wanted to to bring up something that we haven’t covered?
I think the main message that I feel is important, is for everyone – wherever they are – to think about what kind of piece they are in the puzzle, How can we create a society that supports the people who are already suffering from the climate crisis. Think about the 32 million people in Pakistan that had to leave their homes because of floods. 32 million people. Only 80 million people live here in Germany. That’s over a third of our citizens.. I would say that in the timeframe that we have left, the easiest, simplest thing when living in a democratic society is to use your right to protest and your responsibility that comes with it.