Before the flood
I am, it might reasonably be said, a climate refugee – though a very comfortable one. Escaping the forest fires to run a little cafe in Denmark is hardly a sacrifice. But if the cafe might be a good retirement plan for me, it won’t be for my children – far too soon, the whole country in which Cafe Hellebaek is located will likely be underwater.
There is something so powerful about gazing into the distance over a large body of water. Especially when you know that water is connected to all the other water in the world’s oceans. It’s a most thought-provoking experience.
This little village on Oresund, the inlet separating Denmark from Sweden, is a place I keep coming back to. The reason is because my friends here, people I’ve now known for many years, live here, in a bit of an unconventional situation. Where they live, and where I stay most of the time when I’m in Denmark, used to be a castle. The castle burned down and was replaced by a police training academy. When that later closed, it was purchased by my friends, who ran a school there for many years. Now there’s no more school, and the buildings are used for many other purposes, mostly involving the act of caring for others in one form or another — whether it’s looking after troubled youth, leasing space for the local municipality to house refugees, or training volunteers to do development work in Angola and other countries around the world.
One of the aspects of touring in places where I don’t live, but visit often, is I see reality in snapshot form. I meet the baby who is a toddler only a couple visits later. I see a woman who used to come to my gigs anytime I’d play in Copenhagen when she was a teenager. Now she’s in her thirties and is a member of the Danish parliament. A lot happens in between visits.
One thing that happens is the middle-aged people get old, and the old people die. It’s very systematic, I’ve noticed over the years, and there are no exceptions to this rule. The middle-aged people who stay healthy often become very active old people, as active as ever, until they’re not, anymore, and they slow down, and eventually die. Such was the case with my friend Lars-Peter. I met Lars-Peter and Mette when they came to a concert I was part of, a tribute to Pete Seeger in Copenhagen. Lars-Peter was a founding member of the particular strain of the folk school movement that became known as Tvind in the 1960’s. Mette came in later, as a teenage windmill-builder in the 1970’s.
I’ve mentioned the story of the windmill in a previous weekly missive, as well as in a song I wrote about it. It’s an incredible story. When Mette was a teenager and Lars-Peter was a young man, they and hundreds of others, with the support in one form or another of thousands more, built the biggest windmill that had ever been built, and then proceeded to give away the patents for it so others could do the same. It’s a story not only of scientific breakthroughs and engineering brilliance, but of collective action of the most profound and impactful sort. The windmill they built, Tvindkraft, is still running and providing electricity in the town of Ulfborg, in western Denmark. Far more significantly, though, this windmill became the model for industrial-scale windmills, and essentially gave birth to one of the biggest industries in Denmark — windmill-building.
Lars-Peter was one of the best storytellers I ever met. I wish I had recorded any of his stories. He died of leukemia, and in his last couple years had very little energy. But when he could get out of bed, he could still be in great storytelling form until close to the end. In his role as headmaster of a school that educated kids by taking them in buses from Denmark to India and back on a regular basis, Lars-Peter saw the world in ways that very, very few people get to do. And when he did most of his traveling, it was in countries that were experiencing massive popular movements and, in several cases, revolutions. Pick a country in Africa or the Middle East, Lars-Peter had lived there and seen or participated in world-historic events in it. (It’s me saying this, not him — he was far too humble a person to make such claims himself.)
Of course there are others of Lars-Peter’s generation still going strong, but the writing is on the wall. As I sit here in this little cafe beside the water that I’ll be helping to run this weekend and for most of this summer, which is part of the property the old school is on, I often think of Lars-Peter’s stories of the 1960’s around the world, and also of Mette’s wonderful tales of her experiences a bit later in the evolution of the Tvind folk school movement, when in the 1970’s she and others decided to build the windmill that changed the world. (There’s a crash course in mechanical engineering, if ever there was one.)
And then, unavoidably, my thoughts drift back to the present — and to the future. A couple Fridays ago I was hearing a news story about Greta Thunberg, about how she and other students have been skipping school every Friday to protest against their government and other governments failing to address the climate crisis with the level of commitment that would be required to actually really do something about it.
I texted my 13-year-old daughter, Leila, asking her what she was up to. I don’t normally text Leila on a Friday morning, since she usually has her phone off while she’s in school, but I had a hunch. What are you up to, I asked. She wrote me back right away with a picture of herself and some of her friends as they were marching across the Burnside Bridge, walking the two miles or so from their middle school to the other side of the river, downtown, where City Hall is located.
Hundreds of kids skipped school that day in Portland, and in many countries in Europe the numbers were much higher. On this visit to Denmark — my first since last autumn — I have discovered that the Extinction Rebellion meme has taken root among many young people here. I gave a couple young folks a ride from Odense to Copenhagen recently. One of them has spent a lot of time in the struggle against the giant coal mine devouring the Hambach Forest in Germany. The other one was often making statements along the lines of, it seems so hard to feel engaged with this topic — whatever the topic may be, as long as it doesn’t relate to the climate crisis — when in our lifetimes this whole country will be underwater.
Every time he said something like that it was obvious he really meant it — this was not an intellectual exercise for him at all. I tend to get really animated whenever I’m talking about anything that I’m remotely interested in, whether it’s related to war and peace, rent control, worker’s cooperatives, collective action, music, food, sex or whatever. But in the face of the coming flood, it’s easy to see how such passion about things other than the climate crisis can seem a bit misplaced. It can seem, even, like a form of denial.
I dropped my riders off in Copenhagen, where I was meeting up with a couple of friends — Elona, who was moving from one apartment to another, and Ask, who was helping her move, along with me and my unexpectedly gigantic rental car. Ask builds boats of the most wild description, the kinds of structures that you’ve never seen before and will always remember, if you see one in the water. He’s an expert welder and designer, but what motivates him the most is the desire to do something about the climate crisis, using his boat projects as educational tools in various ways.
He was telling me about his latest efforts, and I was telling him about my plans to run this cafe. You’re a climate refugee, he informed me. I hadn’t thought of it quite like that before. I pay rent in an apartment in Portland, Oregon, I support my family, I have work, no one is threatening my life as far as I know, the city I live in has a low crime rate, and Trump has not yet started rounding up the Left and sending us to camps. But, as I told Ask, one of the reasons I’m so keen to run this cafe is not only because I love Denmark, which I do, but because in recent years Portland has been home to the world’s worst air, on some days beating Beijing and New Delhi in that grim competition. The main cause is the forest fires, which are getting bigger every summer, occasionally destroying whole cities, burning hotter than ever, with faster winds than ever — all climate crisis stuff, though there are many other factors involved.
I mentioned Ask’s climate refugee comment to my friend, Kamala. I’m not sure the term refugee is appropriate, I said. Temporarily displaced person, perhaps? she suggested. Thinking more about it I realized the term “climate refugee” is perfectly appropriate. As anyone knows who has followed the refugee crises in the Middle East or Latin America today, the first people to get out of a bad situation are those with the most ability to do so — the ones with friends and relatives in other countries, who are usually also the ones with good jobs, dual citizenship, and very useful things like that. We don’t think of these people as refugees as readily as we think of those who had no options but to board leaky boats in the Mediterranean or walk across the Sonoran Desert. But they’re all refugees, regardless of whether they were able to escape by means of a commercial flight, a valid passport, and a nice apartment in Denmark, or by raft or on foot, with only the shirts on their backs.
Either way, being a climate refugee in Denmark is profoundly ironic. Why? Because according to more and more widely accepted projections of what is likely to happen over the course of the next several decades, after all of the ice melts, there will be no more Denmark. The entire country will be submerged, along with the Netherlands, northern Germany, most of the eastern seaboard of the US, and so many other parts of the world. If I do end up moving with my family to Denmark to escape the world’s most toxic air, we can be fairly certain that we will become refugees again, running next time not from fire, but from flood.
Welcome to Cafe Hellebaek. Come let me make you a drink, before the flood that will likely destroy it sooner or later. The generation that built the world’s biggest windmill might not be around to see the country sink, but Ask’s generation likely will. My hope is that those who will be living through this century’s impending global cataclysms might have some brilliant new ideas for how we might navigate the waters that are rising around us, after the windmill-builders are all gone.
My hope is that people like Ask, my children and others likely to still be around at the other end of this century will still be able to sit in a cafe, sipping a hot drink and looking out at the water — wherever that cafe or that water may be, however much the flood line rises.
Source: This Week with David Rovics – a weekly column and podcast on current events and particularly relevant bits of history. You can subscribe to the podcast by searching for This Week with David Rovics wherever you get your podcasts, or by downloading the free David Rovics mobile app for iOs or Android.