International

Growing Pains

Fridays for Future Is About to Turn One

Just under a year ago, Greta Thunberg launched her campaign to save the climate. The Fridays for Future movement has been growing bigger and bigger and is also experiencing some growing pains -- at least in Germany.

Marcel Kusch/ picture alliance/ dpa
By , , Franca Quecke and
Thursday, 8/1/2019   02:06 PM

Hectic phone calls are made on the way to the Westfalenhalle arena in Dortmund, Germany. "Mom, I'm going to meet Udo!" A few moments later, seven Fridays for Future activists are sitting on a worn sofa in the artists' dressing room next to their parents' idol: Udo Lindenberg, the German rock star.

One hour later, the youths are standing at the front of the VIP section while Lindenberg rocks out tirelessly onstage. The screen behind him shows coal excavators in front of a red sky. The song he is singing, "Rats," was written in 1982 and rails against the destruction of the environment. With his nasal voice, Lindenberg dedicates the song to Greta Thunberg, the girl raising awareness around the world about the changing climate.

Tens of thousands of audience members cheer and the young activists seem pleased. Their message is reaching the older generation on this evening, graying Lindenberg fans. But even before the concert comes to an end, they leave the venue and get back to work. After all, they needed to finish preparations for the summer conference, which opened in Dortmund this week. More than a thousand young people are expected, all of them intent on saving the world.

A General Strike By Humanity

The summer conference is set to last five days, and, despite the heavy reliance on volunteers, will cost over 200,000 euros. Later, at the end of the summer, the activists have even bigger plans: On Sept. 20, they want more than just students to cut class, they are also hoping that workers take to the streets, as well. They're calling for a general strike in order to push politicians to take effective measures against climate change.

It was nearly a year ago that Greta Thunberg, who was 15 years old at the time, began skipping classes to protest in front of the Swedish parliament building, the Riksdag, with her "School strike for the climate" poster. Since then, it has transformed into a global movement. Today, it has become apparent just how enthusiastically many of these youth are pursuing their goal -- and just how difficult it has become to ensure that their movement is just as sustainable as the target they are pursuing.

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So far, at least, they've experienced nonstop success. Young people all over the world are skipping school on Fridays while in Germany, the youth protesters have made appearances at coal-burning electric utility giant RWE's annual shareholder meeting, they have demonstrated at Frankfurt's historic town square and defended their initiative on a number of leading German talk shows.

Support for the movement has been significant, with 26,800 scientists and researchers now backing them as well. In their manifesto, Scientists for Future state that, "as scientists and scholars, we strongly support their demand for rapid and forceful action." Similar groups have also sprung up, such as the 900 organic farmers, mostly from Germany, who call themselves "Farmers for Future," as well as "Parents for Future" and "Grandparents for Future."

There's no lack of financial support. According to the organization, Fridays for Future has collected 300,000 euros in donations in its main bank account. The organization has also amassed 60,000 euros in special account that has been set up to provide legal aid.

In Germany, parents can be fined if their children are truant, and after the city of Mannheim recently moved to impose fines, the activists immediately responded with a press release. "We will use our nationwide legal assistance account and other structures to support those affected in their legal appeals and help them pay fines if they are imposed," it stated. The city quickly moved to withdraw the threats to fine parents.

Growing Pains

But not all of the activists' problems are as easy to solve. In the long run, the movement will have to do more than just relish in their success. Behind the scenes, there are also issues relating to the distribution of power, money and influence.

On the left end of the spectrum, it has been reported that the Marxist-Leninist Party of Germany tried to take over entire local chapters, although the Fridays for Future movement successfully defended itself. On the right-wing, trolls have been seeking to interfere with the activists' chats. In Mülheim an der Ruhr near Düsseldorf, police are investigating possible incitement after anonymous individuals unsettled local activists by sending racist images and banners from the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party to their WhatsApp group.

The movement also faces organizational challenges. Fridays for Future, or FFF for short, is a grassroots movement -- not a legal entity. There is no elected body that can be held liable for its actions, nor does it have a board or statutes. The movement is comprised of like-minded individuals who are connected digitally.

The imprint of the German website lists the name of a student in Kiel who doesn't even live at the address given as the responsible person. The activists in the city do hold their meetings there, but there's not even a mailbox.

The movement is practicing grassroots democracy. The Kiel activists are just as independent in what they do and don't do for FFF as the other 600 local groups in Germany. Each group elects delegates who then coordinate on all matters during a weekly conference call after gathering the opinions of their own local group. If at least 70 groups participate in a vote, then the result is considered valid. In addition, there are also 20 expert teams, or working groups, across the country focusing on political demands, campaigns, visuals and finances.

The movement's draft statutes are 21 pages long and include hundreds of sections and stipulates voting hurdles and things like the obligation to take minutes at meetings. However, like so many other aspects of the rapidly growing movement, they aren't binding yet because they are still under discussion.

It's all very impressin -- in theory, at least -- and many of the students follow their own rules strictly. It takes 11 days before the movement decides on an issue, and urgent matters can be decided on in four days. But the threat of a veto always lurks.

In mid-June the question was raised as to whether the movement should show solidarity with the activists in the group Ende Gelände in the lignite coal mining areas in the Rhine region. Their decision: yes. It prompted a critical editorial in the center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper. "The leadership of Fridays for Future has chosen the common cause with these radical opponents of lignite." But the decision wasn't one that the movements leadership had spent days struggling over. It was the voting procedure of the movement's grassroots base that took time -- a multiple choice form on Google Docs.

Structural Criticism

In addition to Greta Thunberg, who somehow floats above everything, there are also a few better-known figures in the Fridays for Future movement in Germany, led by Luisa Neubauer, a university student in Göttingen. Internally, many are annoyed that Neubauer has virtually become the German face of the movement without ever having been elected to the position. The "structural criticism" working group wants to see such leadership posts voted on in the future.

Other important players, on the other hand, are much less-familiar, for example Louis Motaal, 20, who is just starting his university studies and has registered trademark rights for Fridays for Future with the German Patent and Trademark Office and who runs the main donations account.

"The media are to blame for the cult of personality," says Carla Reemtsma, one of the movement's volunteer spokespersons. "The week Luisa was on 'Anne Will,' (a leading German talk show), four other talks shows requested her." It took a whole day to convince another show to take Reemtsma as a guest rather than Neubauer. Two more talk shows said they either wanted Neubauer or no one at all. The Fridays activists say they held their ground and that ultimately nobody wound up on television.

It all sounds quite attractive, as though there is no real hierarchy, but in practice, the system also has some pitfalls. That became clear at a major demonstration held in Aachen, Germany, on June 21, where problems with the organization of transportation to the event could haunt the movement for some time to come.

A Cool Idea, with a Hefty Price Tag

Jannik Schestag, 24, was one of the main organizers of the demonstration, and in the run-up to the event, the college student conducted a publicity tour to reassure parents in Prague, Vienna, Warsaw, Munich and Leipzig. The math wizz also almost single-handedly took care of the logistics, so that thousands of young people could travel to the event at fair prices. In addition to buses, he also wanted to use trains, borrowing a page from the special train that Ende Gelände chartered to transport people to the lignite protest.

On this front, there are different accounts of what happened. Some say that the finance working group advised Schestag against the move. Others say that many of the local groups thought chartering a train was a "cool" idea. No one knows who actually has the authority to make that kind of financial decision -- does it lie with the many local groups or with the finances working group? In any case, Schestag chartered the trains.

But in the Czech Republic, where 1,000 activists were to travel to the event, only 150 expressed an interest in the train. There was also a shortage of bookings on the FFF website. Two trains had to be cancelled, with the cancellation fees costing 17,058 euros each. In the end, the train plan set Schestag back by 73,000 euros, money he had to tap the inheritance left behind by his deceased father to cover.

It currently looks as though he not be compensated for all of that. Tough negotiations are being conducted internally over the amount that Schestag should be reimbursed. Should he just receive the revenues generated from the tickets? That wouldn't even cover half of his costs. "I'm done with Fridays for Future," says the student, who has been out sick since the protest. "The worst thing isn't even the money. The worst part is that I'll never be able to rely on anyone else again."

He also organized a special train for the Swiss, and here, too, ticket revenues failed to cover the costs. The local movement booked the train and used donations to cover the losses. But the German Fridays for Future organizers are still debating the matter, even after using Schestag's charter train on its website for weeks after the demonstation. The main image on the website was a train with an activist waving the green FFF flag out the window.

'No Time for This'

Stefan Winheller, an expert on association and tax law in Frankfurt am Main, saw trouble coming early on. This spring, a worried father contacted the firm to find out how the movement could be turned into a legal entity. "The activists then sent the message that they had no time for this, that they had to focus on their campaigns," says Winheller. "Inspired by the content of the work, the organizers often procrastinate on the legal aspects, until things blow up at some point. When things go sour, best friends will be scratching each others' eyes out."

The lawyer advises the movement to register itself as an association. "An association is something fundamentally democratic and is very suitable for these kinds of initiatives."

On the fringe of the movement, at least, some associations have been formed. This spring, activists in Hamburg registered the organization Donate for Future. According to its statutes, the organization provides support for environmental protection movements like Fridays for Future. One of the two chairs of the organization is Rene Grassau, a man who turns up at the Fridays for Future protests almost every week, where he is fond of taking to the stage. Grassau is reluctant to speak to the press and says that, because he's over 30, he has been given special permission to protest with the students. Grassau's age, 46, is listed in the register of associations.

The tax office has certified that Donate for Future is a charitable association, even though it is seeking to help a movement that is not charitable under tax law and probably cannot register as such, given that truancy violates the law in a country where school attendance is compulsory.

Fridays for Future also has the help of a foundation called Plant for the Planet, founded by Frithjof Finkbeiner and his son Felix, a student who was once something like the German counterpart to Greta. At the age of 13, he complained to the UN General Assembly in New York that the world was doing too little about the climate crisis. Since then, his foundation has planted millions of trees and trained thousands of young climate ambassadors.

The foundation says it maintains a trust account for Fridays for Future, and Louis Motaal, who applied for trademark rights for the movement, is its contractual partner. The foundation also states that money is only paid out upon the presentation of receipts. The most expensive item so far was the 27,000-euro stage in Aachen. Everything is done on the up-and-up, says Plant for the Planet, adding that the donations to FFF are neither listed as charitable nor booked as foundation funds.

Potential Image Problems

This structure, though, poses a danger to Fridays for Future: It links the movement to a foundation whose image it cannot control. This spring, the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit reported that Felix Finkbeiner had exaggerated the numbers of trees that have been planted.

Opponents of the movement have been exploiting that link for some time now. The far right is keeping tabs on the money flowing to the young people with the same suspicion that others monitor money flows to the AfD. Beatrix von Storch, a leading politician with the party, tweeted in mid-April: "Children with posters are up front, but behind them, the organized #climate lobby collects the donations."

The whisperings of people of that ilk doesn't seem to bother the "children." Three young women, 16, 19 and 20 years old, are sitting on the square in front of Hamburg's City Hall after the Friday demonstration on the second day of summer vacation and looking exhausted. "Our local group hugs a lot to cope with the stress," says Friederike Leppert, who graduated from high school last year and will soon be studying at the University of Maastricht in Holland.

DER SPIEGEL

She worked 70 hours a week helping with preparations for the mass protest in Aachen. After all, chilling during a gap year before starting college isn't really an option when the tundra is burning, she says. Large-scale fires are currently raging more frequently than ever in Greenland, Siberia and Canada. "We need change now," says another activist. "If Germany doesn't meet our demands this year, it will be too late."

The three demands include: a CO2 tax of 180 euros per ton of greenhouse gases, the shutdown of a quarter of all coal-fired power stations and the phase-out of subsidies for coal, gas and oil -- and all this in 2019.

A few days later, Friederike Leppert is sitting at her desk in her parents' living room, looking out at the back yard of the row house. She has the website Trello up on her screen, a collaborative tool that allows people to share "To Do" lists. She has tasks to do every day of the week. There's the plenum, the conference call, a meeting, mails to be sent and the demonstration itself. The problem at the moment: They lack a guest to make an appearance as a podium guest at a Hamburg summer festival.

"I'm taking tomorrow off," the 19-year-old says. "I'm meeting some old friends."

Leppert was deeply involved in the organization ahead of the Aachen event, helping to coordinate volunteers. "But once you got there, that didn't really matter. One bakery donated thousands of bread rolls on Sunday. And everyone helped pass out the snacks for the journey home." She smiles at the memory. Just a mention of the name "Park Hotel" elicits a smile from many of the Fridays for Future activists. That's the nickname they gave to the parking lot where they were allowed to set up their sleeping bags.

A similar mood is emerging already at the summer conference in Dortmund. It's 9:30 a.m. on a Saturday in July, and around 20 activists are having their breakfast, one after the other because there aren't enough chairs for everyone at kitchen table in the apartment in Dortmund where a working group is busy planning the event. They look tired, and they're quieter than usual. There's so much to do. Soon, the approximately 150 workshops will have to be scheduled in different classrooms, night chaperones will be needed for the youngest visitors and the mobile "collective" kitchen will have to be ready. The conditions imposed by the public health department are "megastrict," as they describe it. The youth welfare office has asked about security, and security services alone are likely to cost 25,000 euros.

Connecting the Generations

Jakob Blasel leans back in his chair. Before he organized the first large-scale German demonstration in Kiel in December, Blasel had already been active in the youth arm of the Green Party and with Green Peace. The 18-year-old now enjoys something of a veteran status. Blasel also recently co-founded a future association, Organize Future. As the son of a lawyer, he proudly tells of how the statutes were drawn up by a large law firm in Berlin and that its non-profit status is guaranteed. The association isn't providing direct support to Fridays for Future, but it is acting as the organizer of the conference, and sponsors can donate directly to it.

Germany's Mercator Foundation is also providing 35,000 euros for event and transportation costs. The Federal Environment Ministry has also provided 10,000 euros for the event. And the city of Dortmund has stepped in with logistical support as well: The working groups are meeting in a vacant refugee apartment.

The idea for the conference came from one of the older members who has joined the youth of Fridays for Future: Uli Hauser, a 57-year-old journalist who left his job at Stern magazine to join the movement. He wants to connect the different generations and he also organized the meeting with rock star Udo Lindenberg. For the Dortmund event, he is trying to arrange appearances by Michael Succow, a famous environmentalist from the former East Germany, as well as popular German television presenter Joko Winterscheidt.

And what if the young campaigners become overwhelmed by the mammoth task?

"Climate change is overwhelming the whole world," says Hauser. He complains that everyone is acting like habitual smokers who only quit once the doctor tells them they are going to die. "To be able to do something at 18 that overwhelms you is a wonderful thing."

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