Germany’s “Last Generation” Hunger Strikes for Change in Climate Policy

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Photo credit: Timo Knorr

By Jonah Ruddock

On August 30th, the German activist group Der Letzen Generation began an indefinite hunger strike. What they wanted was a promise of change from the three candidates vying to replace German chancellor Angel Merkel. Their name, the last generation, highlights their belief that people alive today have the last chance at pursuing sustainability before our planet takes a catastrophic turn for the worse. 

“According to a leaked report by the third working group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), there are still three years left until we set a global heating of two degrees. Even a world two degrees hotter means unimaginable human suffering, mass exodus of billions of people, crop failures, and wars over water and food. Agriculture will simply be able to provide less and less food; we fear famines of unprecedented proportions. Climate collapse means…the gradual loss of everything we have (freedom, peace, water, food, air),” their website reads. 

It’s true that climate change refugees are no longer theoretical, but a fact of reality. Climate policy is a hot topic in Germany after the summer’s flash flooding in Germany and Belgium killed over two hundred people. Scientists estimate the event was made up to nine times more likely due to climate change. Extreme weather events as a result of the changing environment are threatening people all over the world, and the number of those affected will only grow. The World Bank has warned that the climate crisis could force 200 million people to leave their homes by 2050, and studies suggest that crop yields will decline as much as 10-50% by 2030.  In September alone, Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta declared a national disaster as an estimated two million people face starvation due to drought, over two thousand people had to evacuate the Spanish province Malaga because of a wildfire, and Hurricane Ida killed over one hundred people in Venezuela and the United States. Cyclone Shaheen is currently devastating Oman. The news cycle is full of climate-influenced catastrophes. It’s clear that something needs to happen, and soon. 

The goal of their hunger strike was to meet with candidates Armin Laschet, Olaf Scholz, and Annalena Baerbock for a two hour live-broadcast conversation on September 24th. More significantly, they wanted Germany to establish a binding, representative citizen’s assembly to find climate solutions. The candidates ultimately refused to comply with both of these requests.  

On the topic of a citizen’s assembly, Hannah Lübbert, Der Letzen Generation’s spokesperson, told BBC: “The climate crisis is also a political crisis and maybe a crisis of our democracy, because the set up with elections every four years and the great influence of lobbyists and economic interests within our parliaments often leads to the fact that economic interests are more important than our civilisation, our survival. Such citizens’ assemblies aren’t influenced by lobbyists, and it’s not politicians there who are afraid of not being re-elected. It’s just people using their rationality.”

The group consists of Jacob Heinze, Lina Eichler, the mononymous Mephisto, Henning Jeschke, Rumen Grabow, and Simon Helmstadt. They have tried various methods of protest to force change at the political level, including sit-ins, scaling buildings, and chaining themselves to streets to block traffic. All were without success, although you could say they’ve been luckier than some. Global Witness reported that 164 environmental activists were murdered for their efforts last year. 

So they took it to the extreme, and Hungerstreik der Letzen Generation was born. The six students, aged eighteen to twenty seven, camped outside of parliament in Berlin refusing to eat. “It is time for nonviolent civil resistance,” their website reads. “It’s time for everyone to take a bold step. There is no future without courage.”

(This is not to say the group wants everyone to hunger strike. They have stated that they don’t want anyone to join in rashly, saying that participating in this kind of protest when unprepared is “very risky” and that they “strongly advise against it,” especially for minors or those sensitive to eating disorders.) 

The strike pushed the group to their mental and physical limits, especially after they gave up vitamin drinks two weeks in. “Our life is in your hands,” states a video they addressed to the election’s candidates. 

“I already told my parents and my friends there’s a chance I’m not going to see them again,” Jacob Heinze told BBC on the fifteenth day. Three days later, he collapsed and was hospitalized, immediately rejoining camp after being released. He would be hospitalized twice more before finally ending his hunger strike after twenty four days. 

They received media attention, but none of their demands were met. Merkel offered a phone call. Mostly, they received pleas to end the strike. “Today we are in all the newspapers, but politicians still do not take us and the climate crisis seriously,” they posted on their social media. 

Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said, “In the political debate on climate protection–which is the most important one we have–every suggestion is welcome, every approach. But please, without endangering yourself.” 

But in the eyes of many young people, climate policy is more than a political debate and requires the kind of immediate action that is not being accomplished by the lethargic machinery of world governments. A survey led by Bath University, which included ten countries and ten thousand people between the ages of sixteen and twenty five, found that 56% believed that humankind was doomed. 83% answered that people had failed to care for the planet, 65% answered that governments are failing young people, and 75% answered that the future is frightening. Young people are chronically stressed about climate issues, due in large part to the deaf ear many world governments are turning to it. “Olaf Scholz talks in a frightening calm about his plans that will lead us straight into the climate catastrophe. That scares me a lot,” Heinze stated in a press release. 

For people all over the world, climate change, and the disasters that stem from it, is already life-threatening. If things continue on this trajectory, it will be for all of us soon enough. That’s part of the reason Der Letzen Generation chose a hunger strike as their most serious form of protest: to replicate the starvation that will befall many if the climate crisis is not addressed with the appropriate urgency. In Kenya, it seems it is already too late. 

All of the original six demonstrators have now ended their strike except for Henning Jeschke. He, accompanied by the twenty four year old Lea Bonasera, dialed up the intensity by beginning a dry hunger strike. Needless to say, refusing fluids after being weakened by hunger for almost a month can be extremely dangerous, and is a last resort. Klara Hinrichs, spokesperson for Jeschke and Bonasera, told Euronews: “We’ve tried everything. Thousands of us were on the street with Fridays for Future. We started petitions. I chained myself to the transport ministry.”

Their protest is now directed at the Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, as he is most likely to be the next chancellor. They have stated that they will not end the strike until he agrees to call for a climate emergency.  

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