European Infrastructures and Transnational Protest Movements

Workshop Report (12–13 December 2019, Kerschensteiner Kolleg of the Deutsches Museum, Munich)

This workshop was organized by RCC’s doctoral candidate Kira J. Schmidt and codirector Helmuth Trischler at the Kerschensteiner Kolleg of the Deutsches Museum as part of the project “Issues with Europe: A Network analysis of the German-speaking Alpine Conservation Movement (1975-2005).” This project, jointly funded by the Austrian Research Foundation (FWF), the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNF), and the German Research Foundation (DFG), is a collaboration between the University of Innsbruck (Patrick Kupper), the University of Basel (Martin Lengwiler), and the Rachel Carson Center (Helmuth Trischler). Issues with Europe examines the complex negotiation processes over European alpine transit policy between the 1970s and 2000s, with a comparative focus on Austria and Switzerland.

By Martin Meiske

After a warm welcome by Helmuth Trischler (Munich) and Martin Lengwiler (Basel), who outlined the Issues with Europe project and central themes of the workshop, the meeting started with a first keynote lecture by Christian Henrich-Franke (Siegen). In his talk, he reflected on different types and functions of expertise, as well as various forms of expert networks. Henrich-Franke’s analysis of standardization, institutionalization, and internationalization processes accompanying European infrastructure planning from the nineteenth to twenty-first centuries, paved the ground for understanding the roots and structures of the decision frameworks in which negotiation processes took place in the workshops most central  period of interest: the time from the “ecological revolution” around 1970 until the present day.

Contested Energy Infrastructures

The first panel, chaired by Maria Buck (Innsbruck) and addressed by Martin Lengwiler (Basel), began with two presentations on inter- and transnational protests against nuclear energy. Johannes Müske (Freiburg) reconstructed the protests against the plans for a nuclear power plant in Whyl, in southeastern Germany—a central reference event for the emergence of the German anti-nuclear movement in the 1970s. He showed how citizens self-organized across the German–French border and developed technology assessments “from below.” Müske furthermore outlined how people in the region rediscovered their shared traditional heritage, such as the regional dialect or the memories of the Peasant’s War of the sixteenth century and creatively mobilized this “folk culture” in protest songs and campaign flyers. Jaume Valentines-Álvarez (Lisbon) shifted the focus further to southwestern Europe and discussed different forms of anti-nuclear protest in the transition time from dictatorships to democracies in Portugal and Spain. He explored the circulation and appropriation of humor and pleasant forms of anti-nuclear resistance, reaching from collages to posters and cartoons, such as the famous Asterix comics, that were widely distributed among European anti-nuclear protesters, the New Left and counter culture in the 1970s and 80s. Irene Pallua (Innsbruck) concluded the panel with a talk on protests against district heating networks in Switzerland. Her case studies of a conventional heating plant in Aubrugg and the nuclear district heating project Transwal near Zurich, which mobilized differently structured protest groups but resulted both in referendums, reminded the workshop participants of how specific technologies, as well as specific national political systems, (co-)shape negotiation processes in Europe.

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Contested Transport Infrastructures

Daniela Neubacher (Budapest/Vienna) opened the second panel on transport infrastructures with a talk on the so called “Danube Movement”—a case of cross-border environmentalism that emerged in a triangular protest zone between Vienna, Bratislava, and Budapest in the fight against large-scale dam projects during the 1980s. The controversies surrounding the Gabčíkovo–Nagymaros Waterworks, a dam-lock system planned jointly by Czechoslovakia and Hungary, uncovered the potential but also the limitations of the mobilization and transnationalization of protests across the Iron Curtain. Henk-Jan Dekker (Eindhoven) shifted the conversation to another mode of transportation, namely cycling. In his presentation he explored the role of the nongovernmental Cyclist’s Union in the Netherlands and its strategies to establish user expertise of the everyday cyclist, such as points of unsafety, poor roads, and long waiting times, in Dutch cycling governance. Nils Güttler (Zurich) enriched the panel—which was moderated by Kira J. Schmidt (Munich) and addressed by Michael Schüring (Munich)—with his reflections on the interactions between protest movements and science that evolved in the context of the controversial plans for the Runway West at Frankfurt Airport. He showed how the assessments mobilized by opponents, as much as by supporters, increasingly pulled scientific experts into negotiation processes and infrastructures, creating fruitful places of knowledge production in which the environmental sciences thrived.

In his evening keynote, Jan-Henrik Meyer (Frankfurt am Main) offered multiple ways of conceptualizing social movements and protests against infrastructures in high modernity. In a first step, he elaborated on potential factors of success in social movements, such as resource mobilization, political opportunity structures, and the right framing of political messages. In a second step, he applied these factors to different levels of protests, reaching from the local, regional, and national to the transnational and transboundary, where they are weighted differently. Meyer concluded that infrastructure planning created many transnational connections and transboundary issues and protests, but he underlined the existence of clear limits in regard to becoming a social movement on these levels. In his outlook, he prognosticated a shift from tangible infrastructures of high modernity to the less tangible and contradictory ones in times of climate change.

The second day started with the impulse keynote of Jens Ivo Engels (Darmstadt), who introduced the concept of “criticality” of infrastructures and applied it to the context of protests. He emphasized the relational character of criticality and underlined that the social importance of infrastructures differs for different groups. While certain protest groups use the criticality of infrastructures to block their flow—such as recently, in the case of strikes on railway lines in France—other groups question the criticality of infrastructures, such as in the protests against new roads and highways or expansion and update projects, like “Stuttgart 21.”

European Infrastructure: New Modes of Contestation in the Twenty-First Century

In the last panel, which was chaired by Romed Aschwanden (Basel) and addressed by Martin Lengwiler (Basel), Janine Schemmer (Klagenfurt) described her research on the “NOGrandiNavi” movement and the use, appropriation, and competition over space in Venice. Schemmer illustrated how the initiative against big cruise ships and the expansion of the city’s lagoon mobilized a broad local and regional network of municipal committees, trade unions, and parties, and at the same time created an extensive transnational network of protesters and organizations concerned with infrastructure projects (including protest movements from Hamburg and Stuttgart, and the German nature protection organization, NABU). Her presentation was followed by Cheryl J. Fish (New York/Helsinki), who shifted the discussion to “Suohpanterror,” an indigenous people collective of activist artists in Northern Europe engaged in fights against a trans-Arctic railway and other infrastructure projects. She illustrated different forms of “artivism” that raised awareness of Sámi agency in response to environmental degradation and discussed its initiatives in connection with the rise of the Rights of Nature movement that has been successful so far mainly in countries of the Global South, such as Chile and Ecuador. Roberto Cantoni (Barcelona) concluded the panel with a presentation on anti-shale gas mobilization in Poland. For his analysis he used concepts from environmental humanities as much as from STS, such as “energy citizenship” and “lay expertise.” Cantoni showed how the “Occupy Chevron” protest mobilized local protesters as much as international activists, journalists, and politicians with the help of various online formats. He found that lay expertise did not only allow local and other non-state and non-corporate actors to better understand the complex relation between shale gas extraction, agriculture, and water protection, but also laid the groundwork for broader imaginaries of energy futures.

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In the concluding debate the discussants reflected on repeating themes and questions of the workshop and paved out potential avenues for further research, such as whether there is a structural difference between anti-infrastructure protest and other general protests, or how negotiation processes changed in regard to the infrastructures of the energy transition (“Energiewende”) in the twenty-first century. Infrastructures are more than technical objects or networks, “they are not things, but bundles of relationships,” as Ashley Carse recently remarked.[i] Accordingly, the discussion also oscillated around challenges and opportunities of interdisciplinary research, questions of race, class, and gender, and the relation of European infrastructure studies and a global history perspective.

The workshop ended with a tour through the Deutsches Museum, guided by Helmuth Trischler, who introduced the participants to the fascinating past and future of one of the world’s largest history of science and technology museums.

[i] Ashley Carse, The Anthropology of the Built Environment: What Can Environmental Anthropology learn from Infrastructure Studies (and Vice Versa)?, posted on the Engagement blog, Anthropology and Environment Section of the American Anthropological Association on May 17, 2016, last accessed January 17, 2020.

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