Blog #50: Christmas for CreationKeepers - Places of Hope!  

December 23, 2021
Monika Weber-Fahr
Christmas is the feast of love and hope, encouraging us to walk in the light of Christ during moments of spiritual darkness. Light is much needed, I find. Across Europe we seem to be drowning again in bad news on skyrocketing Corona infection rates, overflowing hospitals and lock-downs. Elsewhere, the news seem to not be much better; inflation in Turkey, natural disasters in the US, fears in the Ukraine, and the list goes on. Even my BBC morning fix, the Global News podcast, announced this morning that they’d have a “good news special” on the 25th, seemingly finding it necessary to single out moments that show us rays of hope. Also amongst those of us caring for God’s Creation, the list of defeats and losses seems to be dominating conversations, and it’s easy to go into the Christmas days with a feeling of doom and gloom!
This week, though, I saw many rays of love and hope when taking a trip through local history as I visited the exhibition Danube. A journey into the past. It’s a small exhibition - set right in the middle of one of my favorite museums, the State Hall (Prunksaal) of the Austrian National Library. It tells the story of a magnificent part of local nature - the mighty River Danube - and how people interacted with her over the centuries. Mostly an untamed natural space, the Danube was both friend and foe, offering water to drink, fish to eat, and opportunities for transport, but also threatening livelihoods through dangerous floods and currents. Over the centuries, man found many ways to tame the river, turning the Danube into a waterway that was both safer to ship and less prone to unmanageable floods. And just in case you were wondering why that mattered: It turns out that Vienna alone has seen 450 floods, both smaller and larger ones, in the past 1000 years. That means we have, on average, nearly every other year a flood to deal with here. 
Where is the good environmental news, you might ask? Well, one of the exhibits in the Museum documents what was at the time a monumental disagreement between the city’s and the country’s leadership on one side and those in the environmental movement on the other: The planned construction of a major hydropower plant in Hainburg, about an hour south of Vienna. It was supposed to bring jobs and low-carbon energy - but there was also a serious downside to consider as it would involve the destruction of a major and unique habitat, the Donau Au. The disagreements lasted for years and culminated in December 1984 when construction was about to begin. About 8000 protesters had come for a demonstration and many decided spontaneously to stay. They wanted to disturb and slow down the bush clearing and construction work through peaceful passive resistance. Many stayed for days, day after day, night after night, in the bitter cold and snow. When eventually police were asked to remove them, pictures of peaceful  protesters being carried away by police - sometimes with force - created a major national uproar, with 40,000 demonstrating in Vienna’s streets on December 21st, 1984. The subsequent canceling of the construction, and the eventual preservation of the area as a National Park, are directly attributed to these days of peaceful protest. In short: The Hainburg protests marked a complete turning-point for Austrian politics and the role of the environment in political decision-making. The exhibit in the Museum tells the story briefly but beautifully.

Foto: A picture from Friedrich Hundertwasser, inspired by the Hainburg protests, as shown at the Exhibition in the Museum

Today, the DonauAuen area is a National Park and a unique space for wildlife and people; it protects the last remaining major wetland environment in Central Europe. Here, along 36 kilometers, the Danube flows feely, and the wetlands form a green ribbon between Vienna and Bratislava. As the water levels rise and fall quite dynamically here - up to 7 meters - nothing stays the same and the landscape is shaped and re-shaped again and again. The Park itself was formally set up only in 1996, 12 years after the protests at Hainburg opened up the possibility for creating and preserving such a unique habitat and international refuge. By now it is recognized as as a Riverine Wetlands National Park by IUCN, hosting 800 kinds of vascular plants, more than 30 mammalian species,100 breeding bird species, 8 reptilian and 13 amphibian species, and around 60 species of fish. What abundance!

Foto: A spectacular 44-meter long reproduction of the famous Pasetti map of 1857 shows the Danube from Passau to the Iron Gate, including flora and fauna.

So, yes, there is hope! Christmas is a good time to remind ourselves that hope and peace can inspire positive change. In researching about Hainburg, I found even more such stories, collected on Protestwanderung.at, listing examples where people have taken matters in their own hands over the past two centuries - if you speak German, a great resource! Not all of the protests were peaceful and not all ended as positively as the Hainburg protests.  But if you are looking for some inspiration, check out the National Library and the Danube exhibition. Contrary to what you see online on the Museum's English website, the German-speaking one will inform you properly: It is open until the end of January.  Maybe it’s even good for a last minute present to a loved-one: Get a ticket and enjoy!
Merry Christmas!
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