At the edges of big cities, the world’s often unnoticed energy centers are arising to supply energy-guzzling growing cities with their lifeblood. But alternatives and lived counter-designs are also literally cultivated there, as activist and author Andrea Vetter shows in her contribution to the BG text series “After Extractivism,” drawing on an exemplary caring economy in the ex-GDR.
The new “Gigafactory” of electric car manufacturer Tesla is now in operation about 30 kilometers away from the East Brandenburg village where I live. Electric-powered SUVs weighing tons roll off its assembly line. The factory was built without all the necessary permits in place; lawsuits are still pending, but production is in full swing. One month after the start, the first incident occurred. A chemical leaked. The factory is located in a water protection area that is increasingly drying out due to climate change. The bitter irony is that before building the factory was even an issue, the water authority advised against locating small businesses there for environmental reasons.
In my neighboring village, it is intended that a large mountain of material excavated during the factory’s construction be heaped up. A farmer has sold a piece of land for this purpose. German law, which goes back to Roman property law, states that a person can do whatever he wants with a piece of land that belongs to him: farm the land, leave the land fallow, destroy the land, seal it with concrete. He can do whatever he wants – within the limits of what is legally allowed.
On hundreds of hectares around my village, the largest agro-photovoltaic park in Germany is soon to be built. An investor has bought land and leased land, and will now cram it with photovoltaic plants. A committed local councillor has at least managed to ensure that the PV modules have to be built in such a way that agricultural use must be possible beneath them.
Demolition for growth
There are no more energy-consuming industrial plants in my village; it was all liquidated after the fall of the Wall in 1989, when deindustrialization and privatization were the order of the day. The last major local company is – fittingly enough – engaged in demolition and recycling. The development plans for the region – a lot of paper, drawn up in a “participatory process” with citizen involvement – have for decades always had the same goal: economic growth. Innovation. Establishing businesses. Intensification of agriculture.
In summer, two months sometimes pass without a single drop of rain. In our garden, I don’t know which trees I can still plant with a clear conscience, which trees will be able to live here in ten, twenty or fifty years. The climate crisis is not far away: it’s right here. The resource-hungry energy transition is not far away: it’s right here. The growth paradigm is not far away: it’s right here. Here, and in so many other places around the world that are springing up on the edges of metropolitan areas to supply energy-guzzling growing cities with their lifeblood, which in the process are themselves becoming – or have already long been – an exploitable energy periphery.
Land is exploited that belongs to a “natural” or “legal” person, who can do with it as he or she pleases, that is dead and sealed, that dries up or is pumped full of pesticides. The person who stands in the factory for eight or ten hours a day, doing monotonous, draining work on robotized assembly lines, is exploited. Workers often have to travel long distances to do this – in the case of the Gigafactory near Berlin, for example, many of those working there come from Poland. Another price they have to pay: they are far away from their other networks of relationships during the workweek. But that is by no means everything: the person who does the laundry at the home of the person standing in the factory, the person who takes care of the children, the garden, and the household left behind, is also exploited.
Against triple exploitation
Of course, we can and must work to change the conditions of this triple exploitation – and I deeply respect all the people who do or have done this, sometimes at existential risk. What is at stake? Enforcing stricter environmental regulations to prevent factories from being placed in water protection areas; introducing collectively agreed working hours and Sunday bonuses that limit the time people spend in the windowless factory and increase the money that can flow home for doing so; fighting for a right to a daycare place for one-year-old children that ensures that care work is paid for because it then does not have to be provided without payment in the nuclear family.
But the improvement of these legal frameworks cannot hide the fact that exploitation itself remains, that life – our lives – flows along in constrained paths, simply because legal constructs that threaten our existence and traditional standardized ideas suggest it is unalterable that land be private property (from Latin privare, “to steal”), that one’s own lifetime is tradable as “working time” on the market, that a person with a uterus should naturally clean, cook and take care of children.
Considering that we are already living in crisis-ridden times, and that formerly self-evident facts are so obviously becoming fragile, then it is also time not to be satisfied with bread crumbs. It is time to demand the obvious for every single human being: sovereignty over one’s own life, a “revolution for life” (Eva von Redecker, 2020), a “care revolution” (Gabriele Winker, 2015). But what would a revolution for the living, for the caring, mean?
Revolution for the living
Vitality is sustained by caring attention. A garden needs water and a person to water it; a child or a sick person or an old person needs care and companionship; everyone needs food grown and prepared; our clothes, just like our houses and vehicles, need constant mindfulness and repair to keep from breaking down and falling apart. “Economic activities” are the human activities that nourish and sustain life and the things necessary for it.
Anything else is not economy (in the sense of the oikos, the household, which is the root of the terms “economy” and “ecology”), but rather systematic exploitation: extractivism.
To recognize that care is the center of all economic activity (Ina Praetorius) would mean a departure from the growth paradigm, a departure from the idea that more jobs, more industrial companes, an increasing monetization of all spheres of life is better for everyone (Schmelzer/Vansintjan/Vetter, 2022); an exit from the logic of increase at all levels – material, legal, socio-cultural, mental structures; an end to linear progress and exploitation. Care is not linear, but cyclical: it must be provided again and again, every day. It is never finished, it is always necessary. It is not always pleasant, often quite exhausting – but always meaningful.
Transferring the factory into common ownership
What would a caring economy that fosters life mean for our village in East Brandenburg and for the factory 30 kilometers away? First of all, it would be clear that the factory cannot possibly be owned by a single person – whether a “natural” or “legal” person – who, for more or less pay, “hires” other people to manage the business there, to maintain the machines or to clean the toilets. In a caring economy, people cannot and do not have to sell their lifetime. They can only resolve to commit to devoting part of their creative power to something they consider useful, such as producing electric vehicles to satisfy the human need for mobility.
The factory would thus be expropriated and transferred to common ownership – for example, to a cooperative or a non-trading corporation. Each person working there would automatically receive a share. Together, the people would decide time and again what and how they want to produce there. Of course, the people working there could not be the only ones to decide. Those from the surrounding villages would also have a say. In addition, the trees, bushes and other non-human creatures would be represented by a steward, or advocate, and would be given a voice.
The consequences? For example, those working in the factory would not be able to simply buy arbitrary things, such as lithium or steel, on a “world market,” but would have to ask producers elsewhere in the world whether they are willing to share their resources and goods, and on what terms. Perhaps it would turn out that there is not enough lithium for batteries or steel for new car bodies to build a great number of new vehicles. Perhaps someone would come up with the idea of using half of the gigantic hall space as a conversion and repair workshop instead, where, for example, new electrically powered engines could be installed in old, fossil-fueled cars, or two old vehicles could be put together to make one new one.
In a caring economy
Perhaps completely different vehicles would be built, such as no cars at all for individual transport, but bicycles of all kinds (cargo bikes, bicycle buses, etc.), streetcars, electric buses, tractors. Pretty quickly – if people voluntarily put their effort into something useful rather than selling their working time – the factory would lose its closed character of a pure manufacturing plant. People would start setting up music rehearsal rooms to jam a round between welding sessions; they would run the cafeterias together, and cook together; fresh kitchen herbs would grow in raised beds in front of every cafeteria.
Whenever it was someone’s birthday – and that would happen often – there would be artfully crafted cream cakes. Children would play behind the parking lots, chickens would scurry across the front lawn, which would slowly turn green again, with dandelions bursting through the asphalt. People would gather at sewing machines in a hall to mend work clothes. People would set up a café to sit together and philosophize, and many rooms would get sofas for the many meetings needed.
In such a caring economy, life would not be divided into neatly separated areas – such as agriculture, culture, politics or education – but would encompass the whole of life. Every activity would be artistic, educational, political and nurturing at the same time.
More than a dream?
Is this idea more than a dream? Is it also attainable? Probably no one knows with certainty; just as no one can predict with certainty whether and for how long the present, capitalism-oriented “economy” can continue as before. But as dreamy as the idea of a caring economy may seem, it is no less possible and no less probable a future than the idea that 30 years from now there will still be capitalist production of electric cars, thanks to unbroken global supply chains and functioning markets.
However, in order to imagine such a “convivial” factory, it is crucial to anticipate this reality – and to do so where it is easier than in a shareholder-owned factory existing now.
In the small village in East Brandenburg where I live, we own together as an association a large area – a former vocational school with a boarding school (with over 60 rooms), fieldstone barn, warehouses, and an old distillery. We want to convert this place into a cultural quarter. We work there together, voluntarily – where it makes sense. We make joint decisions, we operate it together, as well as our diverse situations and our inner patterns allow. We create space for people “on the move”; we get some of our food from the Solidarity Farm two villages away. We rescue unsaleable plants from a nearby DIY store and give them away to people in the neighborhood. We often fail because of ourselves, external demands, or the legal structures surrounding us.
But we know and feel it every day: another world is possible, and it is already emerging. “Transition justice” cannot exist in a halfway version. It is not a compromise with capital and bureaucracy. It is a whole, full justice that returns to people the sovereignty to take care of themselves and each other, their networks of relationships, their places, and the livelihoods of future generations in a self-determined and mindful way.
Editor’s note: This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here: https://after-extractivism.berlinergazette.de