This speech was delivered in 1912 to the Prussian House of Deputies in response to a proposal by the Free People’s Party. Environmental destruction was not as far-reaching then as it is now, yet Liebknecht was keenly aware of the disappearance of butterflies and insects, of the small changes that bode ill.
For Liebknecht, protecting nature was inextricable from putting nature in the hands of the people. In his day, Berlin had seen many conflicts between its working-class inhabitants and the Prussian government in particular regarding access to the Grunewald, the forests around Berlin. By the turn of the century, the people of Berlin had successfully driven the Kaiser from hosting the Saint Hubertus hunt there, using it for their own recreation and abusing the participants in the hunt. While the populace made it their spot for picnics and trips, the state government made numerous attempts at selling it off to real estate developers. Time and time again, Berliners mobilized themselves to resist this privatization of green space, and repeatedly won.
In our time, the garden city movement has largely been associated with well-meaning middle-class liberalism. Yet while those elements were certainly present in Wilhelmine Germany, when Liebknecht calls for cities to be transformed into garden cities, he is speaking for working-class communities who organized themselves for the right to live in flourishing environments. In 1909 social-democratic metalworkers founded Gartenstadt Kolonie-Reform, a project to build social housing in green surroundings in Magdeburg. These colorful buildings, designed by Bruno Taut, the ‘worker’s architect’, are a reminder that class struggle is concerned with aesthetic values, with the way that the light falls on a blue house.
We are at the point that capitalism is threatening our continued existence. Two million people in London are living with illegal air pollution. Millions of songbirds are vacuumed to death every year in the course of industrial olive harvesting. Across the world, millions of people are already living with climate-related disease, displacement, and desertification. The exploitation of natural resources by capital has not been in our interests. As the wealthy flee Phoenix for Flagstaff to escape the rising temperatures, the poor risk their lives to migrate only to be detained. Capitalist organization of industry and agriculture has led to the devastation of entire communities, resource depletion on a mass scale and the sixth mass extinction. Protecting our natural environment can only be accomplished by overcoming the alienation from nature that is synonymous with the alienation of labour that capitalism has wrought upon us.
Absent from this speech is hope in a technological deus ex machina that can save us at the 11th hour. As he argues nature ‘once destroyed cannot easily be replaced again’. This rings even truer today. Recycling has been revealed to be only another administrative step on the way to landfills, ‘clean’ energy can be just as dirty as fossil fuels. The Left today needs to reckon with this reality: there is no way out of the coming catastrophe other than totally transforming how we live.
This does not mean regressing into a dreary austerity, of inflicting punishment upon ourselves. Quite clearly, the blithe statement ‘happiness is not found in things’ does not help the people who are deprived of the essential material conditions for life, overwhelmingly the international working class. However, the individualized, lonely, consumption of an ever-increasing pile of ‘things’ in the West is a punishment that capitalism has inflicted upon us: a planetary death sentence. We have been robbed of the time and resources to live in a real community: to share our meals with friends, to develop hobbies, to walk through the woods together. Instead of clinging to a sordid loneliness, we must bring forward a vision of a good life that contests that this loneliness is all there is.
Karl Liebknecht’s chief insight was that overcoming the alienation of humanity from nature will be joyous! Our programme is to bring nature to the people. We shall transform the ‘stone deserts’ into the people’s gardens.
It would have been more desirable for us if the Commission had taken a somewhat more vigorous decision because the trend from which this proposal emerges, which the commission has only adopted in a watered-down form, is so appealing and worthy of credit that we can only express our agreement with great emphasis. It is truly extraordinarily important that we recognize more and more what irreplaceable value nature has in her beauty, and that her glories, once destroyed, cannot easily be replaced again. Unfortunately, that’s why we have every reason, in order to sharpen our conscience, to remind the government: it is easy to clear a forest, to dry out a lake, it is easy to devastate a landscape and to disfigure it–for example the Löcknitztal. But it is tremendously difficult to make amends. When we consider the centuries, the millennia of work that nature has needed in order to create the natural monuments that generations have enjoyed, it can easily be understood that all means of modern technology cannot do anything other than fail in settling the destruction that has already taken place. We cannot–and in Goethe’s phrase, we want to call for levers and screws–force nature to restore to us what a foolish thirst for destruction, a dangerous egoism mixed with short-sighted greed for profits, has ripped away from us in our time.
We are seeing how an appreciation for the value of the treasures of nature has only recently re-emerged amongst broader circles, after the wild period of development of our industry, of our commerce, in which all other interests took a back seat to the interest of “Get rich! Enrichissez vous!” This was the time when people mocked those who sought to appreciate and protect aesthetic values as fools who had not sufficiently understood the spirit of the times. Now, after a while, there has been a certain retreat, substantially because of the immeasurable importance of nature and as its value for the health of the population is increasingly recognized, as well as in the moral, spiritual and physical aspects. When we look at what the landscapes look like when we travel by train, especially close to big cities, we are often filled with seething resentment over the recklessness with which the most beautiful landscapes have been sacrificed for the advertising needs of our capitalist circles. This is a brutality without limits and all attempts to limit this tendency have not been of any use as of yet. This is taught us by simple observation: whether we go out of Berlin to the east, west, north or south, everywhere we see these disgusting billboards, which deface the landscape in the most outrageous manner.
It is undoubtedly true that amongst the population itself the necessary respect for national treasures is not frequently prevalent. If the previous speaker has pointed out that the schools and the press should be a lot more effective in providing this orientation, we can only agree. But we must also consider the following: our metropolitan population, in comparison to the population of a small rural community or town, represents a much larger amplitude of need to be in a closer communion with nature. If the entirety of the metropolitan population was as reckless towards nature as is customary and natural in every village and rural community, the complete devastation of nature would follow as a logical consequence. The harm caused as a result of the destruction of natural resources in the vicinity of metropolises therefore cannot be traced back to some kind of brutalizing influence of the metropolises, but is simply a result of the tremendous accumulation of masses of people, who only have a much smaller area of nature available to them in comparison to the rural population, an area to which naturally many more people come than in villages and small cities. Hence, we have every reason to reject the accusations against the metropolitan population. The danger that our natural resources are threatened by big cities is far more simply the logical consequence of the entirely unhealthy amassment of people in the great stone deserts that we called cities.
There is another aspect. The population in the countryside is in a natural communion with nature, nature has not been estranged from them. The rural population is outside every day, almost every hour, and knows how to interact with nature. The population of a city, which has been abruptly detached from nature by the extraordinarily harmful system of colonisation, have been brutally torn from the natural mother soil on which mankind flourished–one can almost say they have been uprooted. This population, when they have the opportunity to go out into nature on holidays or Sundays, will obviously not have the complete understanding for interacting with it, but they will also have an absolute need, such a curiosity, such an intense compulsion to get in touch with nature, to get to know nature that has been wholly estranged from them. They have a requirement for the most diverse orientation, intellectually and viscerally, to do this. This explains a lot and this is why you will not find such a need in the countryside. It is wholly natural and not an expression of some kind of vandalism when city children come outside and tear off a few leaves, or branches or flowers. It is a natural need and can only be tackled by providing a proper fulfillment of this need.
This is why, gentlemen, I think it is necessary to point out once more that every measure that aims to protect nature against human intervention and destruction, must necessarily have corresponding measures which bring nature closer to the people and gives people the opportunity to build the kind of relationship with nature that is necessary for intellectual, moral and physical flourishing. And gentlemen, this includes building great people’s parks and playgrounds. It means that children in the big cities are frequently brought out into nature, that even cities themselves are developed into garden cities, and the type of development that is unfortunately still common in big cities is removed and in this way the dangerous character of the big city as a phenomenon which cuts off the people from nature is gradually remedied. This is a tremendous piece of social welfare which concerns the roots of human, physical and psychological needs. The issue is sufficiently grave. If the human race, particularly in the cities, is not to be further crippled, intellectually, morally and physically, it is urgent to take the direction I have just laid out, at least. This direction means abolishing the separation between human beings and nature once more, to bring people and nature closer to each other, so that people can once more approach the nourishing soil of nature and once more be in a position where they can absorb all of the strength nature alone can provide to man.
Gentlemen, I am firmly convinced that the Persian king who whipped the sea to calm it down performed no less futile work than the previous speakers in their invocations against fashions in ladies’ hats.
I have no doubt that some of you who vociferously clamor against fashions in hats in public must learn at home that fashions pertaining to forces that the male world absolutely cannot match.
I would like to point this out once more: Protection of natural monuments is not enough for us, most importantly, natural monuments must be made accessible to all of us, only then can they be protected because it is only then that the necessary feeling, the necessary appreciation of these natural monuments can be produced and maintained in humanity. As all sorts of nonsense has been mentioned here about what the populace does against nature and its monuments, I would like to take the opportunity after the deputy Ramdohr’s statements to point out how repeatedly the most serious grievances are raised in the press and in every national circles against the activities of the Jungdeutschlandbund and Jugendwehr in nature. Through these events, which serve exclusively militarist and chauvinist purposes, the youth are absolutely not raised to respect nature, to gain a finer appreciation for nature. On the contrary, a contempt of nature is cultivated in them because through these events, they become accustomed to regarding open nature in the fields and forests as merely a plain country for field duty exercises, and not as one of the greatest wonders that humble humanity. In any case, the appreciation for engaging yourself in the details of the beauties of nature is only destroyed by such a militarist violation of nature, but never enlarged.
Gentlemen, I am not alone in expressing these perspectives but rather, I repeat, they have been expressed frequently by the press of thoroughly national circles.
Gentlemen, I must point out yet again: if birds and other species have been spoken about a lot here, it is particularly important to protect them. But when we consider the youth again, the protection of the insect world comes quite eminently into our view. I hope that those amongst us who were butterfly or beetle collectors [in our youth] made it their concern not only to catch the animals but also to nurture them. It is entirely beyond doubt that such an encounter with nature is of overwhelming significance for the moral and intellectual development of the youth. For example, we see in the vicinity of Berlin how the world of insects has been nearly brought to a state of extinction. I remember how at the start of the 1890s, I could still find butterflies, beetles as well as plants around Berlin that you absolutely cannot find anymore these days. These are the regrettable consequences that result from the conditions in the big cities and many other harmful things that are related to each other. I would like attention to be directed particularly towards the protection of the world of insects, butterflies, beetles, etc.
Gentlemen, I have taken the initiative to speak again owing to the statements of the gentleman Schnepp, who spoke of red flyers that had been pasted somewhere obtrusively. I don’t know if the honorable gentleman Dr. Schnepp spoke from his own experience. I am certain he has never seen such a flyer in his life. If such flyers have been stuck up where nature is spoiled by them, then we would be the most remorseful of all, of course.
There is no doubt that such things aren’t approved by us. However I would like to claim that this has never happened. And if one from our side has sinned once, then I am sure that the other side has sinned in this regard three times more.
Translation and Introduction by Rida Vaquas.