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Dancing for a greener tomorrow

Drugs, sex and 24-hour hedonism are all great, but what about Berlin clubs’ carbon footprint? Could the nightlife scene lead the way towards a sustainable future?

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Illustration by Karen Minden

Drugs, sex and 24-hour hedonism are all great, but what about Berlin clubs’ carbon footprint? Could the nightlife scene lead the way towards a sustainable future?

From Easyjetset techno tourists to seasoned Sunday regulars, Berlin’s booming club scene attracts millions of revellers a year. With over 300 clubs in the city, party life is extremely energy consuming, and not just for those wearing themselves out on the dance floor: a single medium-sized club sucks up 1000 Kwh per weekend – as much as a regular household needs for an entire year – according to NGO Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND). They’ve done the maths and all that partying racks up an average of 30 tonnes of CO2 a year. A statistic that hasn’t escaped the rot-rot-grün city government, which is now encouraging Berlin’s party venues to become frontrunners in the city’s bid to cut 60 percent of its carbon emissions by 2030. And there’s money to spend – the “Energy and Climate Protection Programme” (BEK), passed by the Senat last August, has earmarked €100 million over the next four years to make Berlin greener. And Berlin’s clubs will have access to state funding to reduce their carbon footprint. But how?

One suggestion is a green label for establishments that prove their eco credentials – a Biomarke for techno temples, if you will. Another idea is to include a yearly competition among clubs for the most environmentally friendly solutions, which mostly suggests that concrete answers are lacking and it’s up to the clubs to figure it out. Details on how they would be judged and according to which time-frame are equally hazy. Perhaps more effectively, the Senat has started offering energy consultations. Together with the voluntary organisation clubliebe e.V., which was behind the Green Club Guide launched in 2015, the industry’s lobby group Club Commission and BUND, this consultation process operates under the moniker “Club Utopia”. So far, the government’s report is rather sobering, admitting that measures taken in the club scene would have a primarily symbolic function.

Clubs shouldn’t be telling guests on a Sunday morning to start saving the environment. But they can lead by example.”

For some, this isn’t all bad. City parliament member and Green Party speaker for club culture, Georg Kössler, sees clubs as pioneers, as trendsetters within society that could influence party-goers’ habits for the better through best-practice: “We don’t want clubs to be all preachy though,” he stresses. “They shouldn’t be telling guests on a Sunday morning to start saving the environment. But they can lead by example.” So could green club labels play their part in influencing guests? Kössler doesn’t think so. “That won’t work in Berlin. As a clubber myself, I perhaps understand the scene better than others in the parliament and it won’t work.” An avid party-goer himself, Kössler has been front-left in the political discussion on sustainability in Berlin’s club landscape, speaking on panels and hosting Kiez meetings for nightlife representatives in his office. But even with his personal clubbing credentials, it’s inevitable that others within the scene have their reservations. The initiative could be seen as established parties latching on to a subversive nightlife culture in order to score political points. Kössler responds passionately yet defensively: “I don’t see this as greenwashing,” he is adamant to explain. “I see it as marketing for sustainability – and I don’t find that bad at all. My only fear is that clubs who feel the pressure of gentrification, that are fighting for their very existence, might turn around and say, don’t bug me with sustainability.” But these plans are generating strong interest among some clubs – like SchwuZ.

Berlin’s long-standing queer institution has been one of the first to sign up to Club Utopia. Marcel Weber, managing director of SchwuZ and board member of the Club Commission, beams with enthusiasm when talking about the subject. “Clubs aren’t a bubble – they’re a reflection of society. It’s easy to communicate things, like sustainability, to our guests.” As part of the initiative, BUND has already conducted a sustainability survey at SchwuZ, testing taps and appliances. The club came off well in their first consultation, having already implemented several energy-efficient measures, from waterless toilets to LED lighting to biodegradable straws. “You don’t need to create some dramatic image of a turtle dying in the Pacific. We just stopped actively giving out straws unless people ask,” Weber says. The new straws, made from corn starch, might cost more, but as they give out fewer, they actually end up saving money. When it comes to the issue of dirty electricity and signing up for Ökostrom, Weber acknowledges that SchwuZ is in a better position than most; “Not every club has access to their own electricity point,” Weber explains. “They just lease the space and pay for electricity via the rent. Especially in industrial buildings, energy is usually provided to the whole complex via the owner.” He thinks that energy purchasing cooperatives could be a solution.

Not everyone is as convinced of the Senat’s suggestions. Steffen Hack, otherwise known as Stoffel, owner of deep house hangout Watergate, is critical to say the least: “I find the whole thing ridiculous. There’s absolutely no substance there. What I would like to know is why politics is suddenly starting with us clubs? We’re supposed to implement their ideas so they can sell them.” Hack’s passion for the subject is palpable. From punk squatter to chief of the spic-and-span riverside facade, he’s seen the tides change: “Twenty years ago, club owners were basically semi-criminals in the eyes of the state. Now we’re ‘drivers of culture,’” he says mockingly. Hack’s not complacent when it comes to the environment, though. On the contrary: “We’ve been using LEDs for years. We became famous for our lighting. And we chose a green energy provider out of our own conviction because we don’t want to work with big capitalists like Vattenfall.” But Hack is critical of what that actually means in practice: “At the end of the day, we just get the electricity that comes out the power lines. As a result of our decisions, the power grid buys less atomic energy, but I can’t exactly determine what kind of energy is actually coming out.”

Far away from inner-city politics and the bustle of Kreuzberg nightlife, Alexander Dettke, founder of Wilde Möhre festival, has long been acting on his environmental convictions. The DIY ecology-focused festival, held yearly in the Brandenburg countryside, had its first run six years ago and now welcomes 5000 guests. Dettke’s credo: “Hedonism shouldn’t burden anyone.” For electricity consumption his team linked up with a nearby Trafowerk – a local transformer plant – to power the festival. “This way, we could draw more energy and stay on the normal grid. External structures like campsite lighting are still run by generators but we’re working on solar-powered batteries.” Apart from electricity consumption, the other main polluter for festivals is the journey to the location. The festival has managed to reduce the number of guests travelling by car from 20 percent to eight percent, with the majority using their eight bus services and public transport. Should Wilde Möhre be rewarded with a green label then? Dettke likes the idea.“I think it would really make a difference. But I don’t think this label should discriminate against other clubs. It should be pretty easy to get. And then there should also be a premium seal for clubs that really get their hands dirty,” Dettke smiles. “A gold green label.” But behind the environmental idealist stands a staunch pragmatist. “I don’t think a carbon-neutral festival is realistic,” he admits. “A good target would be to emit no more CO 2 than if our guests had stayed at home” – a goal the festival claims it has already reached.

So can the party scene be at the forefront of going green? “It’s difficult,” Dettke says firmly and perhaps surprisingly. “We’re idealists but things are often hard financially. With so little capital, every cent hurts.” And indeed, while Berlin certainly profits from its party animal image, many clubs live a cash-strapped reality, with owners, collectives and staff often working under precarious conditions. If they are indeed to make small but symbolically meaningful contributions, the city government will need to put its money where its mouth is.