Germany’s energy transition, its Energiewende, is the backdrop for Juli Zeh’s novel Unterleuten. The title has multiple meanings. First, Unterleuten is the name of a small rural town where citizens learn one day that a wind farm is to be built in their midst. “Unter Leuten” (written apart) literally means “among the people.” And “Unterleuten” has a connotation of “second-class citizen” (in the way that “Untermensch” means sub-human).
Energiewende is not a random backdrop for “Unterleuten”
We are thus peeking into the world of those being left behind by progress. The “under-people” in the town of Unterleuten view the elites as out of touch with their needs – a subtle nod to the anti-establishment populism running rampant from Trump to Brexit and the AfD in Germany.
The novel has generally received favorable reviews from the literary world, which stresses the book’s portrayal of modern individuals fighting for their own self-interests with ever less attention paid to anything one might call community or society. But these reviews generally overlook the specific depiction of Energiewende matters, as though the backdrop could be anything.
For energy experts, the Energiewende is not arbitrary, but stands front and center. The small, admittedly unrepresentative number I have spoken with said the book rubbed them the wrong way. Why the diverging interpretation?
What’s there not to like?
The plot is not only fascinating, but also well told. The problem for Energiewende folks is how the wind farm developer is depicted. He calls a town meeting not to announce that he would like their support for the project, as everyone assumes, but – as he reveals after opposition is expressed – merely to inform everyone that the wind farm is coming and to tell them whose property what turbine will likely be on. Locals have no veto, he informs them with ennui, because the state government has to meet its climate targets. Some people will get their share of turbines whether they want them or not. (Ironically, they end up fighting over who gets what because of the revenue.)
The project developer is thus arrogant and unlikeable. Wind power also gets slandered; in one passage, a character thinks of all of the bad things about wind turbines – noisy, deadly for birds, ugly, and unreliable. It is the most concise list of such nonsense I have ever encountered (that, too, a literary achievement).
Dubious statements about the Energiewende are left standing – it’s fiction after all!
Here, we need to keep in mind what fiction is. It is not the author’s job to correct her characters, but to make them seem real. American author Ishmael Reed once asked rhetorically at a reading, “Why do some feminists get upset at me, the novelist, when one of my male characters is sexist?” Statements we would like to see corrected simply are left standing in good fiction.
Indeed, Energiewende folks should probably all be thankful to Zeh for writing this book. In 2050, if the targets are even roughly met, there will be no more community meetings for new wind farms. Young people might not even know what such meetings were. Germany will, by then, be filled with the wind turbines it needs, and new, larger machines will simply replace old ones as need be. But no further massive expansion will be underway. The companies that own and operate these facilities – and it may not be the ones we have today – will be the new entrenched masters (which is why we should pick them carefully now).
We are thus currently witnessing an industrial transformation so massive that we may be overlooking the societal changes it entails. Just as we now read Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz to take a trip back 90 years to Berlin in the 1920s, people in 2100 may read Zeh’s novel to visit an era different from theirs in ways we can hardly imagine today. What seems obvious to us will require footnotes for them, just as we hardly know what to make of the “electric brougham” in a short story (PDF) by Katherine Mansfield from 1908 (it didn’t occur to her to explain what an electric vehicle is, just four years before they began to die out). “So that’s what the Energiewende was like,” readers of Unterleuten in 2100 may think, “weird.”
Lessons for Energiewende campaigners
Most people really aren’t actively concerned about climate change; in this novel, the topic doesn’t even rear its ugly head until the wind farm developer arrives. Normal people have immediate problems – crying infants, bills to pay, health issues, family disputes, you name it. Climate change is too far off in the future, too abstract, to be in the foreground for them today.
This insight is useful. Repeatedly, I have heard the same thing in community energy projects: people wanted to save the town first, the planet second. Renewable energy developers should first ask what issues locals are dealing with and then see whether a renewable energy project can help – the exact opposite of what happens in Unterleuten.
I know of numerous cases where locals took the lead and built wind, biomass, and solar at a rate that the community accepted – and they eventually reached 100% renewables for power and heat. But who the hell wants to read boring stories like that? “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Tolstoy famously wrote at the beginning of Anna Karenina (and proceeded to tell an unhappy tale). Unterleuten is a good novel partly because the wind farm guy is a jerk.
Furthermore, just because a character badmouths wind power, doesn’t mean the book does. On the contrary, it’s situationally comical that someone could get more upset about a wind turbine a kilometer away than about a guy banging on metal and burning car tires all day right next door.
But perhaps my reading stretches things. If you want, you can just read Unterleuten as a thriller, and it works quite well. Perhaps that will even be the dominant reading 80 years from now, when “Energiewende” has become a word German children learn in school – and then forget. Like “electric brougham.”
Header image: Craig Morris