Budge: The Environmental Impacts of the G8 Protests

Anti-G8 protesters march to the barricades.

This year saw the Group of Eight (G8) summit taking place in Heiligendamm, Germany, adjacent to the Baltic Sea. Like the site of previous G8 summits, this area is fairly remote, requiring a large amount of organizing and travel for those attending the week of protests surrounding the summit. Since the street battles of Seattle, meetings of institutions such as the World Trade Organization and the G8 continually locate to less and less urbanized areas, making travel for activists longer and less efficient.


After helping to organize a G8 information tour stop in Los Angeles in April, I decided to attend the G8—given my desire to meet with No Borders activists in the UK and Germany. I also wanted to take part in the migration-based protests and organizing planned for the Sunday and Monday of the anti-G8 protests.

Throughout my week at the G8, I was faced with many concerns over methods and successes of action, solidarity with those arrested and imprisoned, remembering to eat and staying out of police reach. I was also continually nagged by a growing realization of the environmental impacts that we were directly creating through protest. While several documents were produced and distributed in various languages informing activists from outside Germany what to expect regarding their rights and police repression, I do not recall seeing anything relating to the literal environment that protestors would be entering. I do not posit that I am the first to come to the realization that mass protests are inadvertently (and often not-so inadvertently) detrimental to the environment. This is, however, something that requires more discourse within activist circles, particularly concerning global convergences.

Arriving at the G8

Discussions surrounding the guilt faced by many activists traveling to distant parts of the globe to protest are nothing new and do not need to be rehashed here. Nor does the increased risk to the environment due to ever cheapening flights—particularly within Europe, where flights are offered starting at less than two dollars (see EF!J July-August 2007). Though many of us opt to travel by bicycle on a daily basis, we are also aware that our carbon footprint is easily blown out by just one flight a year, let alone several more for those of us privileged enough to be global travelers.

On the opening day of protests surrounding the G8, I traveled by bus alongside a number of people from Australia, Germany and the US to the site of the protests. We had managed to acquire tickets on a bus chartered by a union in Berlin, taking a relatively short three-hour journey north to the seaside town of Rostock in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. During our travel, we passed countless police vans, along with the intimidating sight of military tanks and trucks guarding strategic sites. On arrival, we were struck with the sight of approximately 80 large charter buses lined up along the autobahn. Earlier in the week, we had heard a rumor that there were no buses left for hire within Berlin as they had all been reserved for the G8, and this was becoming increasingly evident.

Reports also stated that there would be approximately 16,000 German police in attendance, coming from across the nation. This meant that not only were those protesting using excessive levels of transportation, but that the police-state that had been deployed to the region would bring its own high levels of motorized transit, accommodation and food requirements. At times, it was possible to count triple figures of large green and white police vans and cars on the road. This continued across the region for the next week.

For the duration of the week, three camps had been constructed to house activists. These were located in Rostock, Reddelich and Wichmannsdorf, spanning approximately 22 miles in distance. Somewhat thankfully, organizers had managed to convince the regional train operators to run a train between the camps and into the center of Rostock on an hourly basis, 24 hours a day, for the entire week. Though this led undeniably to a decreased reliance on personal transportation (and an increased ability to actively travel between different actions), the use of mass transit also led to unprecedented travel in the region.

The feeling within the camps was mixed, something between radical gathering and rock concert (there was a nightly concert on a stage in a nearby field). The campsites were divided into barrios; my group decided to set up in the Queer Barrio at Reddelich. Within the Reddelich camp—the supposedly more “radical” base—were the Queer, Zapatista, Anarchist Teapot, Interventionist Left, Black Bloc and several other barrios. Most barrios contained their own kitchen, providing amazing food, coffee, tea and water every day. Alongside these were a “concierge,” a media tent, bars, cafes and more. An around-the-clock watch was instituted, partly due to the constant police presence surrounding the camp. In addition, spaces were set up for decompressing after actions, discussing sexism within the “activist left,” and other important conversations. Low-flying jets, military helicopters, continued threats of neo-Nazi and police attacks, and false alarms in the middle of the night made for low-intensity psychological warfare, leaving campers sleepless and on edge.

Marching in the Streets and Fields

As many have witnessed through various media outlets, the first day of protests saw many thousands taking to the streets of Rostock. A commonly seen spectacle of the protest actions was that of the Black Bloc setting fire to and overturning cars in between back and forth battles with heavily armed police on that day. Less shown were the burned-out and melted trash cans, piles of rubbish in the streets and broken glass from 32-ounce beer bottles being thrown at police or discarded.

The day of action for migration took place on June 4 after a day of organizing at the Rostock convergence center (a five-story squatted school on the outskirts of town). Throughout the day, those seeking asylum could be heard leading the chants, “We are here because you have ruined our countries!” and, “Freedom of movement is everybody’s right!” The Rostock reporting center for those seeking asylum was closed down for the day—a large success for the demonstration. The final migrant rights march was stopped by police claiming that the march contained “violent elements within the crowd,” and that there were 10,000 activists. (We possessed a permit for only 2,000.) With the police clearly nervous from the clashes earlier in the week, we came face-to-face with water cannons, riot police and dogs, which created a heavily militarized zone between the march and the town of Rostock.

As the week progressed and the focus of protests moved from urban areas toward the area of Heiligendamm where the summit had begun, new challenges arose. Though organizers had agreed with local farmers to ensure that protesters would keep out of the surrounding fields and forests, thousands found themselves with no option but to cross these areas to avoid road blocks and police oppression. Though it was impressive to witness massive lines of protesters moving knee-deep through rapeseed fields, an air of frustration and dismay hung low over the actions. Rivers were crossed, habitats were disturbed, waste was discarded and sections of undergrowth were trampled. (Many local farmers later called for reparations for damage to their crops.)

During the days on which we attempted to blockade the summit, the landscape was filled with the constant sight of police roadblocks, armored vehicles, water cannon trucks and military helicopters ferrying people back and forth into the meetings. Many of us cheered, danced and sang when we learned that the nearby airport and many important roads leading to Heiligendamm had been blocked. This meant that delegates, media and staff would have a much harder time getting into the summit.

Autonomous and larger-organized roadblocks went up across the region, many from the forests bisected by roads near the towns of Bad Doberan, Rostock and Heiligendamm. Though largely successful, the construction and defense of roadblocks resulted in an increased use of sea and air transportation to ensure that the G8 gathering could continue. Traffic jams resulting from the blockades frustrated many locals, who ultimately left their cars idling—sometimes for hours at a time.

A Need to Reflect

Though many conversations could be overheard regarding the impacts that the mass protest actions had imposed on the local environment and population, there appeared to be no specific space for a critical assessment of such impacts. Perhaps a global protest consisting of a convergence of thousands of activists is not the place or time to do so, but when is? Where are the follow-up discussions (or pre-planning discussions) regarding the detrimental impact of mass protests that draw activists, media, police, politicians and many others from across the globe? How do we weigh the benefits of mass protests against the environmental and social impacts brought about by our actions? What alternatives are open to us?

Active reflection is a necessary component of any form of protest. Days of action were planned to protest climate change, but consideration of the surrounding environment was missing. I do not suggest that we as protestors should take the full blame for the increased pressure on the environment in regions where we congregate. The very existence of the G8 and the inability of government leaders and corporations to actively address issues of environmental degradation and global warming must ultimately be held responsible. However, this does not absolve us of all responsibility.

There has been a good deal of discussion surrounding the need for solidarity actions conducted from activists’ home cities, towns and regions. Many opt to do this—whether due to environmental, economic, social or mobility-related constraints. But many more continue to travel thousands of miles to attend mass protests. One approach that deserves more attention and participation is the bicycle caravans that approached the G8 after traveling for several weeks, spreading information and inviting others to attend the protests. Though not all of us are in the position to cycle to events such as the G8—due to geographic distance, physical ability and time constraints—bicycle caravans provide a sustainable alternative and a chance for social interaction.

In any case, the need for discourse on how we can and will mitigate the impacts that we, as protestors, bring about is critical.

Budge is an activist geographer from Melbourne, Australia, and can be seen cycling around Los Angeles, calling for the removal of borders and for freedom of movement for all (visit www.noborderscamp.org).