Securing accumulation by restoration – Exploring spectacular corporate conservation, coal mining and biodiversity compensation in the German Rhineland

Journal Article

German energy giant and coal mine operator RWE makes two products: cheap electricity and ‘pretty new landscapes’. These ‘pretty new landscapes’ are biodiversity offsets to compensate for the destruction of the ancient Hambacher Forest for the world’s largest opencast lignite coal mine in the German Rhineland. Drawing on in-depth fieldwork including participant observation and interviews in and around the mine and its offset sites, this paper explores the relationship between coal mining, spectacularisation of conservation, the ecotourism–extraction nexus and accumulation by restoration. I illustrate the historic and contemporary importance of restoration activities to the accumulation process and explore the recent engagement of mine operator RWE in the provision of restored nature (in the form of ‘eco-points’), which constitute new business opportunities.

The significance of RWE’s biodiversity work for accumulation by restoration lies not only in its profit opportunities but its productive power: the legitimation of coal mining and the making of new, ordered ‘ecologies of repair’. This productive power operates through the mobilising function of RWE’s offsetting work, which forms the foundation for corporate partnerships and alliances with conservation groups and volunteers. These lend legitimacy to RWE’s ‘repair work’ and form the basis for the ecotourism–extraction nexus by turning the mine and its offsets into ‘extractive attractions’ for visitors and ‘nature lovers’. Its power further manifests in the way it captures imaginations through novel imaginaries and narratives of sustainable coal mining, supposedly creating not only a ‘better nature’ but a ‘better future’.

Positioning offsetting as social technology of governance, I explore RWE’s spectacular performance of sustainability and the ontological flattening to facilitate claims of commensurability and ‘offsettability’ of nature. These are integral to the ecotourism–extraction nexus and grounded in the belief in the human/corporate ability to recreate nature, a fascination with huge earth-shifting machinery and a commitment to high-modernist ideologies of control.

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