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3.19 Environmental Social Movements

Instructor: Dr. Peer Illner
Language of instruction:
Course type:
Subject course, B-Track
Contact hours:
48 (6 per day)
Course days
: Tuesday & Friday
ECTS credits
: 5
Course fee:
€ 1,300
Can be combined with all A-Track courses
🌍 Critical global issues addressed in this course: Sustainable Cities and Communities (SDG 11); Climate Action (SDG 13); Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions (SDG 16)

Course Description

As every year sees record global temperature spikes and climate modelling predictions turn from bad to worse, climate change has emerged as a primary new arena of political conflict in Germany and beyond. Today’s climate activists are young, well-educated, and understand the immense dangers posed by anthropogenic climate change. Through lobbying efforts, educational campaigns, and direct action, they confront governments that have proven unable to limit CO2 emissions and usher in the green energy transition. While the public largely supports the goals of the climate activists, their spectacular, and often disruptive methods have garnered widespread criticism in the German media and beyond.

The goal of this course is to familiarize students with the breadth of local struggles for climate action through a mixture of critical readings, case studies, and excursions. Indeed, German social movements offer a unique vista on the successes and failures of environmentalism, given the country’s rich history in environmental activism, coupled with its role as European economic powerhouse, based on its car industry. Taking a broadly historical perspective in its first part, the course begins by establishing the background against which current German environmental movements can be understood. We will examine the early nature conservation movement and interrogate the relationship between environmentalism, democracy, and economic development. Discussing the climate skepticism of current authoritarian regimes, we will ask if environmentalism is necessarily democratic. Moving into the postwar period, we will examine the role of image-making for climate activism, focusing on the galvanizing power of the first image of the Blue Planet, and studying its effects on the early German Green Party.

Moving from historical contextualization to present-day environmental struggles, the second part of the course shifts from theory to practice. We will study the strategies, goals and objectives of current social movements and citizen initiatives, including Berlin Autofrei (“Car-Free Berlin”), Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion, and Die Letzte Generation (“The Last Generation”). From lobbying efforts to direct action, the course examines the different approaches adopted by these organizations, contrasting the strategy of the “long march through the institutions” (Rudi Dutschke – student activist and prominent figure in the 1968 student protests) with that of disruption and civil disobedience. To conclude the course, we will survey the wider political struggles advanced by these movements, from reducing the number of cars in Berlin, to limiting air traffic or transitioning to a green economy, and examine the punitive, collaborative and reformist state and market responses that these social movements elicit. The course addresses the critical global issues Climate Action (SDG 13), Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions (SDG 16) and Sustainable Cities and Communities (SDG 11).

Learning Objectives:

  • Students will gain a thorough understanding of German environmentalism in its historical context and current significance.
  • Students will acquire knowledge of the main environmental social movements and compare different activist tactics and strategies.
  • Students will interrogate the links between environmentalism, democracy, and economic development.
  • Students will gain essential skills in critical text and media analysis, pertaining to the representation of environmental issues.
Download Syllabus (printable PDF incl. day-to-day schedule)

Recommended Course Combinations (Selection)