General critiques of the consequences of economic development combined with the legacy of the 1968 rebellion to create a particularly strong environmental movement in West Germany. The memorandum of seventeen scientists on “the limits of growth,” sponsored by the Club of Rome, resonated with West German citizens, who shared in a long tradition of concern for nature, and who, as residents of a densely settled country, felt the effects of ecological deterioration particularly keenly. The ethical socialist Erhard Eppler joined the debate and pleaded for quality of life as a priority over further economic growth. At the same time, citizens who were upset by the insensitivity of technocratic planning began to gather together in spontaneous protests to resist the destruction of their neighborhoods by so-called urban renewal or “traffic improvement.” The preservation of local environments against the depredation of government bureaucrats and business interests led to a series of symbolic confrontations in which citizens opposed prestige building projects that promised to infringe upon their quality of life.
The failure of established democratic authorities to respond to civic needs triggered a series of grass-roots movements that spread beyond individual localities and began to form wider national and transnational networks. Elected authorities proved especially inept at handling the issue of nuclear power, which produced eschatological fears that any large malfunction of commercial plants threatened devastation similar to that of the A-bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These fast growing citizen initiatives were a strange coalition of local farmers, city residents, activist students, left-wing intellectuals, and idealists who were generally using the nonviolent protest methods of the American civil rights movement, even if a radical fringe was all too willing to meet repression with violence of its own. Believing in technological progress, established parties like the SPD had no clear strategy for dealing with this kind of civic unrest. Wanting to be heard, a minority of radical activists began to form “free communities” by occupying nuclear construction sites or apartment blocks in major cities, thereby violating property laws in the self-appointed service of a higher cause.
After many local confrontations, the Federal Republic managed to channel the environmental movement back into regular politics through the founding of a new political party. In January 1980, loose local initiatives coalesced into a Green Party, which propounded an ecological, social, grass-roots democratic, and pacifist program. Though riven by ideological disputes between value conservatives and leftist radicals, and idealists and political pragmatists, the new party had increasing success in local, regional, and national elections. This success can be attributed to a pervasive climate of fear that combined ecological concerns with a longing for peace by symbolically fusing concerns about nuclear power with fears of nuclear war. Moreover, scientific evidence on the role of acid rain in forest death demonstrated that industrial capitalism needed a fundamental course correction if decent living conditions for plants, animals, and human beings were to be maintained. In the state of Hessen, the party managed to gather enough votes to make the youthful former rebel Joschka Fischer, clad in jeans and tennis shoes, the first state minister for ecology.
In the GDR, a smaller environmental movement also coalesced in the wake of various peace groups, but the government reacted repressively by stigmatizing it as subversive. As a result, ecology initiatives were forced to become part of the general opposition to the SED-dictatorship (see Chapter 16). Since the Communists took environmental concerns even less seriously than capitalist politicians, it is not surprising that the first major nuclear accident on European soil occurred in the Communist bloc in Chernobyl (Ukraine), arousing fears of the spread of contamination into the West.