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Global Ideas

Eco activists struggle to get the message out

In the German town of Witzenhausen, activists are working on a sustainable and eco-friendly lifestyle by planting their own vegetables, cutting waste and consuming less. But not everyone’s convinced.

At first sight, it looks like a normal picnic: a colorful group of men and women wearing jeans and linen shirts spread out on a blanket with food and drink. But it’s what they are eating and drinking that is a bit out of the ordinary - a refreshing smoothie made of fruits and veggies that ended up in a garbage bin at the supermarket - waste produce, in other words. Nobody seems to mind, though.

“Up to 25 percent of our carbon footprint depends on our diet,“ they say. In this group, food is politics.

A man holds a funnel-shaped piece of cardboard covered in foil. It works as a solar cooker. (Foto: DW/Grit Hofmann)

Hans Spinn builds a solar cooker

Hans Spinn has brought along a large piece of cardboard covered in foil. The 57-year-old activist, wearing a yellow shirt and black shorts, folds the board inside a basket, creating a funnel.

“Now we have a solar cooker, the Assyrians had this ages ago“ he says. He places a black-colored glass bottle filled with potatoes inside his solar cooker contraption. “The potatoes will be cooked through in 2 hours, without any power. It works in winter, too,“ he says.

Spinn and the 20 other activists here have turned their small city of Witzenhausen in the heart of Germany into a Transition Town. It’s a grassroots movement that originally started in Britain in 2004 and has now grown to include 30 countries. Its followers are convinced that fossil fuels must be phased out, because they produce far too many emissions and consume far too much energy and resources.

‘Take what you want’

Only about 15,000 people live in Witzenhausen, and around 1,000 of them are students who study ecological agriculture at the University of Kassel’s satellite campus. But it’s not just students who have gotten involved - people of all ages have joined the green movement.

Hans Spinn has been protesting nuclear power and the transport of nuclear waste for years. Stefan Wöllner, 62, took part in peace protests too, rallying against arms proliferation in the 1980s. Now they have become Transition Towners, as they call themselves.

In fact, Spinn himself brought the Transition Town concept to Witzenhausen in 2010. He is an integral part of the city and busies himself with every detail. In the city center, he disappears for a moment before returning with a yellow watering can, which he uses to tend to tomato plants growing in a flower pot.

Mini gardens (Foto: DW/Grit Hofmann)

The activists have planted small gardens throughout the city. Everyone can pick and eat as they please

“They’ve let the tomatoes dry up again,“ he says, talking about his fellow activists. He points to a small pink sign hanging over the pots that encourages people to pick and eat what they please. All across the city, these quirky signs hang above pots full of herbs, fruits and vegetables, next to impromptu gardens that have sprung up in tiny corners, in front of businesses, in the central square. There is mint growing out of cut up basketballs or chives sprout of out empty coffee tins hanging on drainpipes. This was all Hans Spinn’s idea.

“Everyone can take what they want,“ he says.

‘I don’t want to live like a parasite’

Could these guerilla gardens save the climate? “That’s just our calling card,“ say the Transition Towners. “Our main goal is to build up resilience.“

But to do so, people have to change their mindset, to learn how to live without fossil fuels. The Transition Towners urge locals to slash consumption, to recycle and to eat local - in short, to live “grandchild-friendly,“ says one member, Rüdiger Urban. The 73-year-old activist slim activist with a gray beard is called Svadesha.

A young woman stands in the shop and laughs (Foto: DW/Grit Hofmann)

The Transition Towners opened up a shop in the city center three months ago

Next to Svadesha sits Farid Melko, a 27-year-old who has become a driving force behind the movement. He designs the website, spreads the message on Facebook and gives interviews to the press. He just finalized a shoot with a major television network. “I don’t want to live like a parasite,“ he says. “What are we passing on - besides nuclear waste?“ he asks.

He then swings onto his bicycle and races off to a meeting about rent for the group’s shop, a 30-square meter space in the heart of Witzenhausen’s pedestrian zone. If the rent goes up, the Transition Towners won’t be able to afford it anymore, and that would mean a huge setback. The storefront gives their movement a face and space for events or films in the community. It helps raise awareness about their cause.

Residents remain skeptical

In the market square, Witzenhausen’s residents have developed their own image of the Transition Towners. “Oh you mean those guys with the gardens! It looks like a bunch of hodgepodge to me,“ says one woman who works in a store selling toys and keepsakes. “And that Hans Spinn, he’s a bit out of it. I don’t really want to stand there and listen to a lecture from him,“ she says. No hard feelings intended, but there is certainly skepticism in her voice.

A registrar at a business across the street says the group is too aloof, “far too detatched from reality. But the fact that they’re bringing some fame to this town, that’s great,“ he says.

Witzenhausen is just one of eight official Transition Towns in Germany. The mayor, Angela Fischer, is an agricultural engineer and is proud of the movement’s work. But she believes it is her town’s university and the international students it draws that sets it apart.

Timber frame houses line the street in the city center (Foto: DW/Grit Hofmann)

With its half-timbered homes, Witzenhausen is one of eight official Transition Towns in Germany

“Witzenhausen is more than just a Transition Town. Sure, it’s an exciting concept - but can you actually draw investors with it?“ she asks. It’s an important point because Witzenhausen is deep in debt. Fischer cannot afford to finance many of the projects her constituents want to see realized - and that means she has no money to subsidize rent for the Transition Towners’ shop, either. Instead, she has to make do with what she has.

In the last mayoral elections, Hans Spinn was actually in the running, winning seven percent of the vote without ever launching a campaign. That, he says, was confirmation enough. “I see that more and more people are taking part,“ he says.

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