Coping Strategies. Questions regarding Resettlement, Participation, and Energy Self-sufficiency

author: Valeska Flor


“Nothing was normal anymore in this village that was disbanding bit by bit; bombarded by noise during the day, but desolately quiet at night. Not only the buildings were missing, the people that had given life and breath to them were missing as well” (Bachér 2011, 37). With these words the author Ingrid Bachér describes the resettlement of the town Garzweiler, Germany, during the 1980s. In her novel Bachér reports about the daily life of the fictional Aschoff family and how lignite mining causes rifts in the landscape and in the lives of the people living there. The German energy requirement is covered by a mix of fossil fuels, nuclear power and renewable energy. Although renewable energies are to be supported during the course of the German energy transition, lignite is still presented as an important partner and transitory technology in this mix. Therefore, the contribution of coal/lignite in this mix has decreased considerably but still has its use. However, the consequences of a constant energy supply for thousands of people in lignite areas, in particular resettlement, are often disregarded. The ethnography of the Rhenish lignite area presented in this paper has allowed to show the ambivalence of energy production, consumption as well as coping strategies of resettlers.

Energy Issues and the Electrification of Society

“Energy” is omnipresent and determines our everyday life. But what does “energy” actually mean? In physics, energy is defined by the ability of a substance, body or system to do work, and this also applies to humans. As long as we live, we convert energy: while breathing, eating, moving, sleeping and thinking. Nature also supplies an infinite amount of energy: sunlight, wind movement, water power, geothermal energy, or renewable biomass can be used for energy and supply us with electricity. Energy is therefore not only a purely physical quantity; it is a metaphor for individual prosperity and the prosperity of a country and its society. The electrification of society as a whole began with the introduction of electric illumination, initially around the turn of the century in public spaces and later—around the 1920s—in private spaces. During this period, the extraction of energy resources and the production of electricity were increasingly integrated into the economic, political and socio-cultural argumentation patterns (which today are also referred to in connection with lignite mining). The basis for the idea that energy is the fundamental driving force of the economy and society was formed precisely in this context. Energy was no longer just an “energetic view of the world” but a “general cultural principle” (Binder 1999, 241). Nowadays, our understanding of energy is rather everyday and universal, but also diffuse: “hardly imaginable is a life without the many electrical aids, and at the same time it is a secret, the path of electricity in our everyday life lies in the dark” (Ibid., 9). Electricity is simply there, but during crises—like resettlement—, more thought is given to electricity and energy consumption.

Reasons for Lignite Mining and Resettlement in Germany

The resettlements procedures currently taking place in Germany are drastically changing the lives of their residents. In this context it is to say that most of the villagers do not leave voluntarily. They have to leave because of the Section 79, subsection 1, of the federal mining law which says that: “The assignment of property is permitted in individual cases if it serves the public good [. . .], and if due to the site dependency of the mining operation the enterprise cannot be carried out by any other reasonable means.” (BbergG § 79, 1). To put it bluntly: the law puts the good of the many before the good of the few. The resettlers do not have the option to stay. They have to move and (re) settle somewhere else and find a way to cope with these experiences.

Coping Strategies: Participation and Energy Self-Sufficiency

Coping and adjustment are important aspects of the Rhenish lignite mining area, e.g. during the planned citizen participation process where the resettlers gain agency through civic engagement. This is done through a participation procedure in the resettlement process. Keywords such as democratic legitimacy, social compatibility, planning and competence acquisition, self-determination and participation, as well as compensation for material and immaterial losses of resettlers were mentioned, explained, and criticized by my interview partners. In addition, numerous practices could be observed. These participatory practices can be understood as the “skillful performances of competent bodies” (Reckwitz 2003, 290), where the habitus and the social, cultural and symbolic capital of the resettlers are merging with the embodiment of knowledge (Bourdieu 1977). They are knowledge-based activities and practical abilities guided by the acquisition of skills, i.e. activities in which practical knowledge and understanding are central (Reckwitz 2003, 292).

During the resettlement process, behavioral routines are developed, which enable the resettlers to act as experts in their environment. The behavioral routine “energy expert” is one of the most important roles in the process. As the villages resettle due to society’s need for energy, there is a special motivation for discussing holistic energy concepts and reducing dependence on fossil energies in the future. For this reason, the resettlers acquire knowledge in connection with a wide variety of energy issues: they learn about innovative energy concepts, such as climate protection settlements, current energy-saving regulations, passive houses, and centralized and decentralized energy supply. Being an energy expert means being independent of the energy companies in the future. To be independent from a company that is responsible for the demolishing of their own Heimat—an image that is prominent in most of the interviews. But learning is not enough, being active—in the planning process and in (political) activism—is presented as a way to gain agency. Agency in a normative political process which reduces resettlers—at least in the beginning—to a passive role, i.e. they do not move on their own free will, is the basis for coping and adjustment. In this context agency encourages the resettlers to think about their own energy requirements consumption and enables them to plan their future accordingly.


Bachér Ingrid (2011): Die Grube. Berlin: Dittrich Verlag.

Binder Beate (1999): Elektrifizierung als Vision. Zur Symbolgeschichte einer Technik im Alltag. Tübingen: TVV.

Bourdieu Pierre (1977): Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Reckwitz Andreas (2003): Grundelemente einer Theorie sozialer Praktiken. Eine sozialtheoretische Perspektive. Zeitschrift für Soziologie 32/4, 282-201.