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

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