Politics of Adaptation: The “Flood Idiot” and the Slow Liquidation of Normality

Kite-surfer on a flooded meadow, with leafless bushes in the foreground and a cluster of single-family homes in the background. Image: Police, Barsinghausen, 2024
Image: Police, Barsinghausen, 2024

While the political right seems well-prepared for the age of catastrophe, the left is not, because we have yet to develop (mass) narratives that go beyond the false choice between doom and cruel optimism. One way to forge an emancipatory politics of apocalypse would be to address adaptation, Lukas Stolz argues.


In the last days of January 2024, almost unnoticed amidst the ongoing militarization of public debates, we have entered a new era of ecological struggle and historical consciousness in Germany. A headline from the German weekly Der Spiegel indicates this shift: “Klimakleber wollen nicht mehr kleben” (“Climate gluers no longer want to stick”). This headline doesn’t just describe a shift in climate activism tactics: away from the blockage of streets towards less controversial Habermasian actions. The exit of the climatist as the main actor in the theater of ecological struggle in the most influential European country marks a shift in the political unconscious: away from progress towards adaption as telos of our age. What does that mean and why is it important?

Let’s talk about a picture that was taken in Lower Saxony. The police in Barsinghausen, a small town near Hannover, took the photo in the first days of January this year. I came across the picture in a Bild article on January 4th titled “Flut-Idioten suchen den Kick im Katastrophen-Gebiet” which translates as “Flood Idiots are Looking for a Thrill in the Disaster Zone.”

In the pixelated photograph, we see a kite-surfer on a flooded meadow, with leafless bushes in the foreground and a cluster of single-family homes in the background. The green and gray color fields in the image reminded me of Andreas Gursky’s 1999 photograph “Rhine II.” With the sale of the photograph for 3.1 million euros, Gursky became the world’s most expensive photographer. In 2002, he provided the motif to Gerhard Schröder and Joschka Fischer for the red-green re-election campaign. A version of the photo also adorned the office of Armin Laschet, former governor of North Rhine-Westphalia and the CDU’s most recent candidate for chancellor.

No threat from the outside

Back to the picture of the “flood idiots” in Barsinghausen: It struck me immediately that it captured the current political moment, the unfolding of the climate catastrophe in this part of the world, with an almost uncanny precision. What exactly struck me? On the one hand, the ordinariness. As someone who grew up in northern Germany, the whole landscape seems very familiar to me: the green-gray fields and the gloomy winter sky, the single-family houses with gabled roofs, the iron workers that as a child conjured up fantasies of ancient colossuses. These elements represent the everyday normality of my upbringing in a middle-class family in the 1990s and early 2000s.

However, this familiarity is interrupted: In the lower part of the photograph, we see the gray water and the green meadow blend into each other, suggesting that this is not a regular lake or river with a demarcated separation between land and water, as depicted in Gursky’s Rhine photographs. It is a first small indication that something is not normal, a subtle disturbance. A more obvious questioning of normality than the transition between land and water is the kite surfer. The figure of the kite-surfer is not necessarily uncanny, it represents leisure and recreation, we can imagine them on a beach in the North or Baltic Sea. It is not unlikely that he lives in one of the houses in the background, works as an employee in the public sector of Lower Saxony, probably middle class: able to afford the hobby of kitesurfing and the occasional trips it requires, perhaps in a VW camper. What’s the alienating and disturbing effect of this image if it contains no irregular elements, no threat from the outside?

It is just that: Normality in this image is not interrupted from the outside, but from the inside. Two different elements of the everyday, houses and fields on the one hand and the kite-surfer on the other, are put together like in a montage. Normality corrupts itself from within. The image is like a hyperlocal meme, assembled by the reality of flooding in northern Germany, which is related to the global reality of climate catastrophe. But the climate catastrophe here doesn’t look like the biblical apocalypse overwhelming civilization. It’s not a gigantic wave rolling over New York. No, it’s an almost comical scene: a flooded meadow in Barsinghausen with a kite-surfer.

The police, your “friend and helper” as a saying goes since the 1920s , probably took the picture to document an infraction: As we learn from the Bild article, surfing on flooded meadows is strictly forbidden and will result in an official complaint. The Interior Minister of Lower Saxony, Daniela Behrens (SPD), warns: “I can only warn against such life-threatening nonsense.” Again, the voice of the authorities warning of life-threatening danger where one could also see harmless fun seems familiar to me as a German. What emerges from the title is the figure of the “flood idiot” and the designation of the landscape as a “disaster area.”

There are certainly some dramatically flooded areas in Lower Saxony, but I can’t help but notice a dissonance between the dramatic title and the harmless picture: the strong wording evokes images of large-scale devastation and destruction, e.g. after earthquakes or wars. With these images in mind, the damage we see in the picture is probably manageable in comparison. The description of the picture is an inversion of the right-wing discourse on climate catastrophe so typical of newspapers like Bild: If mentioned at all, the severity of the ongoing climate crisis is hidden behind technical language without illustrating the consequences. In stark contrast, a flooded meadow in Lower Saxony with a kite-surfer is described as a “disaster area.”

From “climate idiot” to “flood idiot”

The fear and anger that come from the pervasive sense that normality feels increasingly hollow and untrustworthy are projected onto the figure of the “flood idiot,” who accepts the status quo: If climate catastrophe brings you floods, go kite. The “flood idiot” is the hedonistic successor to the “climate idiot,” the figure onto which the unpleasant feelings resulting from the repressed reality of climate catastrophe have been projected. The notion of the “climate idiot,” also known as the “climate terrorist,” is most closely associated with the figure of the “Klimakleber,” which translates as “Climate Gluer” and refers to the activists of the Letzte Generation (Last Generation) who glued themselves to the streets as a form of protest. It was coined by the German tabloid Bild to condescendingly report on recent climate protests.

The “Klimakleber” is still a political subject: they put their bodies on the line to stop us from getting away with business as usual. They are trying to do something about the catastrophe by hitting us where it hurts the most: the car infrastructure. Quite successfully, they disrupt the fiction of normality. The “flood idiot,” on the other hand, has abandoned the political ambitions of the climate-wreckers. They stand for the individualistic and hedonistic acceptance of the status quo. Inadvertently, the “flood idiot” reveals the slow liquidation of normality that must be repressed, even as it happens right before our eyes. Part of this repression is the inversion of language: Instead of accepting a global emergency, for which the language of a disaster zone would be appropriate, the sense of disaster is displaced and used for a rather innocent scene in Lower Saxony. Because you can’t report a catastrophic reality to the police, it’s the “flood idiot” who has to step in. They are the scapegoats because they make it harder to ignore the slow liquidation of normality, as represented by the flooded meadow. Since there seems to be no viable way to interrupt the irresponsible policies leading to this liquidation, it is the “flood idiot” who is deemed irresponsible.

To take this a bit further: The “flood idiot” represents the diminishing promise of progress. They don’t try to solve the climate catastrophe by putting sandbags in front of their houses to stop the floods. Instead, they surf on the flooded meadow. They have accepted the tragedy of the worker as defined by the Salvage Collective: “All realistic solutions, defined by capitalist realism, are inadequate. All adequate solutions, defined by the exigencies of the crisis, are unrealistic.” Consequently, they point to a shift from the paradigm of prevention, which has been at the center of climate protests in recent years, to the paradigm of adaptation. The “flood idiot” literally challenges the idea that humanity is in the driver’s seat of history and in full control. Perhaps revolution is not about pulling the emergency brake, but about letting the kite fly in the storm? It’s not just an idea that’s being challenged, but a deeply ingrained narrative structure that modern capitalist societies use to make sense of themselves. To challenge this narrative structure is to challenge the very identity of modern capitalist societies. As the geographer and economist Geoff Mann writes, “the tragedy of liberalism is its inability to narrate the end of progress. Yet this is the impossible task demanded of the Anthropocene.” The “flood idiot” epitomizes that impossible task.

Resisting false alternatives

While the political right is well prepared for the age of “flood idiots” and a political theater structured around the broken promises of modernity, the left is not. While the right can not only meme, but also plug into a tradition that goes back to Spengler’s doom-fantasies and reap the dividends of political disillusionment, the left has been busy working through its own nostalgia since the 1990s. Surely there must be a place for political mourning and leftist melancholia. But perhaps there is also a place for adapting to the slow liquidation of normality, beyond the false alternative of doom and cruel optimism that structures public debate these days.

A good place to start would be to develop a language and aesthetic of catastrophe – indeed, a politics of apocalypse – that transcends both the right-wing desire for large-scale doom scenarios like the Great Replacement and the liberal desire for constant consternation and moral outrage. A sensibility that pays attention to a present that is already cruel enough might even rediscover forms of humor as a legitimate cultural coping technique. Sometimes, in all the tragedy, we can find moments of comedy that offer much-needed temporary relief. Recognizing how tragedy often appears in comedic drag might contribute to the realism of our times.

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