A Glimpse into the Exclusive World of Chess – Interview with Grandmaster Georg Meier

Imagine you start a new work and one of the other new colleagues is surprisingly a chess grandmaster. Find out why Georg Meier chose to study, how chess programs changed the profession and where he sees the potential of chess for society.

Why did you choose to play chess? How did it start? 

It was chosen for me, because I learned the game according to my mother when I was between three and four years old. I do not remember when she taught me, but I remember from a very young age that it was my favourite board game. But I liked board games in general. Whenever I would like to play something, I was always happy when it could be chess. Whenever I met someone new, my way to initiate a conversation was to ask them if they play chess. Basically I was always looking for playing partners. In my family, chess did not have a certain status, it was considered a worthwhile game but nothing more than that. 

When did it become serious?

I guess I somehow was pretty serious because I was playing quite frequently. I did not know that there were clubs, tournaments and chess literature until I went to a sport festival in my hometown Trier when I was nine years old. I tried out different sports and there was a chess stand from a local chess club. So I sat down to play. My mum was there with me. Someone said to my mum: “He is playing pretty well and in two weeks we have the city championship under 11, would you like to play?” And from there, it basically took off, because I played without even being in a club, I qualified for the next stage and the next stage. Then it was already the state championship. I did not manage to qualify for the German Championship. But then I went to a club and trained and the next year I tried again. My mum bought me books so that I could study on my own which I did as a young child. 

Was it always possible to pursue chess while going to school? 

In elementary school it was no problem. Anyways, school was easy for me and I barely did any homework. My teacher said somehow I am still good enough to get okay grades. So it was fine for me. Then in high school it was more complicated. I was very lucky because the director of my highschool was a strong amateur chess player himself. He basically gave me a carte blanche to go to tournaments. The rule was very simple. As long as my grades are okay, I can take off pretty much whenever I want up to the legal maximum. That allowed me quite a bit of flexibility. A lot of other chess players in Germany did not have these conditions in school which made every tournament participation more difficult to organise. 

What did your classmates say?

They were pretty chilled about it. They kind of figured out that in Oberstufe (final two years before graduation) I had more missed hours than the whole course together and they found this kind of funny. It was never an issue. When I came back from a big tournament, the students would ask me how it went, there was always some interest. But I never liked a teacher to say in front of the class “Georg just came back from a tournament and you know what? He is now the German Champion.” I hated this kind of stuff, I did not want to be singled out as “special”. I also represented the school because in Germany, there are school chess championships. You play there as a team and we went a couple of times to the national championships. In this way, I was giving back a little bit to the school. 

What fascinates you at the game?

It is very fair. We play with the same information. There is no luck involved at all. You get out what you put in. Such a clean situation you never have in life and since I like to compete one to one this kind of always attracted me, because if you win it was your effort. You are responsible for it. The success is yours. The same with your failures. You learn how to think about it in a responsible manner and you want to figure out what were my mistakes, how can I do better. Also you never cease to learn even if you are the world champion. The fascination never ends and you always try to outsmart the opponent. The better you get, the more skilled they get at outsmarting you. So it always remains interesting. 

I guess when time goes by, the more books are on the market and the more complex the game gets, or is there a stagnation? How would you describe it?

The one thing that changed everything is that computer programs play chess and evaluate positions. They are the most powerful tool we have now in chess. Every professional player spends countless hours everyday basically analysing positions with the computer. The computer may tell us what is a good move or that there are three, four, five good moves in a position, and then the human has to figure out himself why this is the right move if you don’t grasp it already. So you go deeper and check different possibilities with the computer until you feel that you soaked up the knowledge. You need to distil it yourself. So it is kind of a man plus machine collaboration. Of course it is only something which exists in this millenium. Before, everyone was analysing the games of the world champions, trying to grasp what they did and why and now everyone’s master is the machine. 

Refik Anadol, Machine Hallucinations – Nature Dreams Centre Pompidou-Metz, France, 2022

That is interesting. How do you feel about it?

It makes professional chess much much tougher, because everyone needs to work very hard to stay on the top. In that sense, as a professional player, I was in between. In my formative years as a player, computers in chess were on the rise, but they were not as dominant as they are now. So even my long-term coach was saying that I am more a player of the old era. Probably it is true. I am happy that I am not a professional player under these circumstances. 

How much time and how much work do you put into your chess game?

When I play a tournament, on most days I am doing nothing but preparing for the game, playing the game, eating and sleeping. My mental energy will be completely spent at the end of a tournament. Before a tournament, I try to use whatever free time I have to kind of get into shape, but when I do not have tournaments coming up, I play some games online, quick games, and that’s it. I barely do any real chess training. 

Right before a tournament, how do you prepare it? Do you analyse the opponent? Or is it a secret?

No no. Everyone has an opening repertoire. So basically with white and black, we have a set of ways to start the game to steer the character of the struggle into a certain direction. Everytime you get to play your opening, you analyse if it went as expected or if there was a surprise. You find some new angles with every game you are playing with it. We have databases where professional games are recorded all the time. If yesterday an important game was played, a professional may have already analysed it and be ready to discuss it the next day. I may also follow games of top players and openings that interest me and try to learn from their games. So this work on the opening repertoire is very typical. 

Other than this, the most straight-forward way is to analyse games after you have played them. 

So you learn something with every game?

Yes, especially if you have an opponent who is at your level. 

How would you describe your style?

I like to control the situation on the board. It is unpleasant for me when I am hit by a real surprise, something I did not foresee, especially when I have not so much time left for the next decisions. So these two are related. On the other hand, a very important part of preparing for a game is to assess the strengths and the weaknesses of the opponent. So let’s say there is a player like me and we both do not like complex struggles where it is difficult to find one’s way and moves are difficult to make. I may feel that we are both uncomfortable there, but he is even more uncomfortable there than me, so I would change my usual style and use his weakness. 

How do you see this?

In his game. For me it is not abstract when I see a game. The pieces are not abstract entities to me, but it is more like in Napoleon’s times, when they were commanding an army on the open battlefield. I see my units, I am experienced in how they cooperate well, how they should be positioned in certain situations, so I can really read what is going on, like on such a battlefield. Every game is the chronicle of such a battle. Before you play a prospective opponent, you go through his recent games and you get a sense of what kind of player you are facing. 

Can you apply it also to real life? 

There is no direct application to real life situations, but the way a chess player needs to approach the game to become better cultivates useful ways of thinking. You can use these tools in any situation. I have a need and a drive to structure information and a good eye for logical flaws, which is an outcome of my years working on chess. So it is not even conscious anymore. I usually have a different approach to a problem than other people, just because I have spent so many years applying my intellect to chess, it shaped me. But the positive thing is that basically since I am different in my approach, I can always bring some value to a group. This is my impression. At the same time I benefit from the perspectives of others. 

After you were a professional player, or you are .. 

No, now I am just a very strong amateur. 

Okay, so you decided to go to university at some point, why did you? 

That is a complicated question. In essence, I was not satisfied with only playing chess. Especially when you are trying to perfect your game, you usually end up spending all your mental capacity on this or a very big proportion and you lose out on the breadth of human experience. I did not want to limit myself to this forever as a career. So studying was my decision to widen my horizon. 

Now you have two parallel professions. How do you cope with this?

Basically, the moment I went to university, everything started to shift from 100 % chess. It started to decrease. During my studies, I eventually reached 50 – 50 and this just continued. So now, my chess is at most 10 % and the job 90 % in terms of priorities. This is healthy for me. My mental energy is also limited and I am totally fine with this. 

What are the upcoming events for you? 

The Chess Olympiad in Chennai, India. It will start on July 27th and end on August 10. For the first time I will represent my mother’s country Uruguay. 

The Chess Olympiad was meant to be in Moscow. What do you think of this decision to move it to Chennai?

It’s an obvious decision. You cannot have any type of World Championship in Russia these days.

Why did you decide to change your team and to play for Uruguay? 

For the way I see myself in chess right now as a strong amateur, it is much better to play for the Uruguayan team, because they appreciate my presence. I like the people I interact with, the players and the officials. It is a carefree atmosphere that I did not have at the German national team for many reasons, one of them is perhaps that I am not a professional player and so this switch was in line with the broader developments in my life. 

How is your team?

I think they are very much looking forward to playing in Chennai. Probably it will be the strongest Uruguayan national team they could ever field. I am in the world rankings much higher than the second strongest Uruguayan player. After my switch was announced, I heard heart-warming stories from the president of the Federation. For instance, he told me about a call from one player who is motivated to work on his chess again so he can make the national team and play with me. 

You also have Uruguayan citizenship, right?

Yes, my grandparents fled the Holocaust and my mum was born in Uruguay. They have a law which gives citizenship to all descendants of Uruguyans. I have a brother and we are both Uruguyans by birth and just had to claim our credentials at some point. Germany allows two citizenships when they are acquired by birth. So I never had to choose. 

You played multiple times against Magnus Carlsen, the current World Chess Champion. How was it? How would you describe his style? 

It can be a very deflating experience, because he is maybe the best player of all time and he is very universal, he can tailor his game to his opponent to a degree no one else can. Even the best players are beaten quite badly at times by him. Actually, I had some well-fought games against him, and one of the games I could have won, but it ended in a draw. I think my record is a couple of losses and a couple of draws. The experience to play against him is something special and very valuable for every player.

How would you describe chess players in general and how were they reflected in the Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit”?

I think it was a very good depiction of professional chess players. I think being so absorbed by the game is something I can relate to. This idea of addiction: Most of the players are addicted to the game, but if you do not live a healthy lifestyle, you cannot be a very top player. That is one departure from the series. Back in the days in the last millenium, the players were actually more like the main character in the series. There was even one world champion – Mikhail Tal –, who was a famous Bohemian, he was smoking, drinking…. When he passed away, they could not decide which organ failure was the cause of death because all organs failed more or less at the same time. So yes, this existed. Like in any sport or activity like this, often, very very talented people are kind of extreme in many ways. This has nothing to do with chess in itself. 

What is going to happen at the Chess Olympiad in Chennai?

The name is a bit misleading, because it has nothing to do with the Olympic Games. Nobody stops the World Chess Federation from using this name for its tournament, but a more accurate name would be “World Team Championship”. So there is an open section, I think they expect almost 190 teams to show up, basically all member federations of the World Chess Federations can field a team. At the same place, there is also the women’s competition, and they also expect 150 – 160 teams. Every team is made up of 4 players and an alternate, so basically every day after the conclusion of a round, the next pairings are created. You learn which team you are facing, you see the line of five people, you try to guess which four are going to play the next day. Everyone starts preparing. The next morning, the actual line-up needs to be submitted and there are a few more hours until the actual game starts. This is basically the main story of the event. We have some rest days. In total we play 11 games, so one game per day and a rest day in the middle. 

What do you expect to happen in Chennai?

Probably the United States is going to win the open competition. Hopefully, the Uruguayan team will have a great time and I hope that being there the first time representing Uruguay that I simply manage to be in good form and post a good result. Ideally, to help the team to have the best result in their history so far. That would be a nice start. 

We already talked about how chess can influence your thinking, where do you see the potential of chess in general for society? 

I think it is a fantastic tool for the education of children. Not in terms of being forced on any child, nothing should be forced on any child, but it is very useful to offer children this game. The children who like it may go deeper and it will automatically develop some traits that are useful in everyday life and in the formation of character. To sit and think about your decision and to learn that you are responsible for the outcome, that you can learn from your mistakes, this is all something that you want children to develop. 

It is already widely used in the development context. In South America, many governments are supporting chess at schools. In African countries there are also programs which are growing rapidly and gaining more and more attention. There are some countries which actually introduced chess classes in elementary schools. One which comes into my mind is Armenia. I think Georgia also started something like this. Even in Germany, there are some schools that replace classes in mathematics with chess classes one or two hours per week. There are not that many studies. Usually everyone cites the same one and it points to the results of the children who had chess instead of more maths doing better in several fields.

Fields where you have to think logically.

Even in languages it seems to be useful. There is quite a significant group of players who have a remarkable capacity for foreign languages. I speak four languages but there are guys who speak 10. It impresses me every time. It seems to be related to chess. 

How do you see yourself in the future? Chess-wise?

I do not have a specific goal anymore. I like to play. I just choose a few events which will be nice and enjoy this as my special hobby. 

Work-wise?

I am at the beginning, like you. I do not have grand plans. I will take it step by step. 

Thank you so much for the interview!

You are welcome.

Is there anything you want to tell, something that I missed? 

No, you ask good questions 🙂 

Interviewer: Julia Solbach

Editor: Marco Antonio Cristalli

Photographs: Anna Solbach & Julia Solbach

The cover photo was taken at the German national chess league’s tournament on 21 May 2022 in Sögel, North Germany.

Photograph of the exposition: Une installation de Refik Anadol et Refik Anadol Studio (RAS)
MABU Collection / mabu.eth

Humanitarian aid initiative for Ukrainian refugees

A van fully packed with wheat, pasta, sugar, cookies and cornflakes. 4 passengers including me. 1,200 kilometers ahead, the distance between Meppen in Germany (my hometown) and Ostrołęka in Poland. Between these two small cities exists a city partnership since 1994. At the beginning of the war and the arrival of Ukrainian refugees in Ostrołęka, Ostrołęka’s city mayor started to publish calls on Facebook for food and clothing. This was seen by Anna Solbach, a board member of Meppen’s partnership committee. Thus, the partnership committee organised a humanitarian aid transport to Ostrołęka for around 700 Ukrainian refugees who fled to Ostrołęka since the beginning of the war. The city of Meppen donated 2,000€. I joined this journey to document the transport and to support with translation.

We started very early in the morning on Sunday, 22 May at 6 am and arrived at 6:20 pm. Luckily, there were no traffic jams on the road. After the exhausting journey of 12 hours there was nothing better than eating a delicious dinner with Polish soup, bread, and cheese. 

On the next day at 10 am, we unloaded the van at the City Center for Family Assistance (MOPR) which is comparable to the Social Welfare Office (Sozialamt) in Germany. It is the place where supplies for Ukrainian refugees are collected. Also the primary school no. 5 is in the building.

Ostrołęka’s citizens collected clothing for Ukrainian refugees and bought it to the gym hall of the primary school in Ostrołęka – including garments for children, toys, diapers, shoes, and prams.

Afterwards, we were invited to the city hall where we spoke with the city mayor Łukasz Kulik (41 years old) about the situation of Ukrainian refugees. The mayor told us that some Ukrainian people experienced severe trauma and face now difficulties to start a normal life. Ostrołęka has another partner city in Ukraine: Pryluky. No one came from this city because there was no possibility to leave.

Photographies from Ukraine in 2015 at the Culture center in Ostrołęka: the director of the institution Zenon Kowalczyk showed us the exhibition covering three topics – Maidan 2014, war and the civil population, and pictures from the Donbass region. War lefts unforgettable scars.

As you can see on the picture below, there is even a sign of the city partnership between Ostrołęka and Meppen. Partnerships beyond borders are essential for peace, especially in times of crises.

I love OKA = Ostrołęka

Author: Julia Solbach

Photographies: Anna Solbach/Julia Solbach

Between soil and water: Peatlands and their importance for the climate

Growing up in a peatland region in North Germany, I find mires and wetlands beautiful and unique. We often used to go for a walk in the mire and were fascinated by the various shades of colours and variety of plants. Of course, we carefully watched our way, because going astray may be a life risk as you might sink into the ground.

Peatlands have been severely degraded in the past for agricultural purposes and for extracting peat which served formerly as fuel. Nowadays, it is used as soil for gardening. The consequences are devastating. Huge amounts of carbon dioxide are released and are one of the factors driving climate change. It takes thousands of years for a solid mire to evolve, but only a second to destroy it. 

To find out more about peatlands and their role for the climate, I spoke to Tom Kirschey, Head of the International Peatland and Southeast Asia Program at NABU (“Naturschutzbund“: union for nature conservation). According to him, all of our attention is absorbed by the war in Ukraine and the Covid-19 pandemic, circumstances we would not have imagined in our wildest dreams 2 years ago. And yet we face two catastrophes if we do not act now: the biodiversity loss and the climate crisis, including extreme weather events, wildfires, drought, rising sea levels and melting of glaciers. 

Tom Kirschey, Head of the International Peatland and Southeast Asia Program at NABU (photo credit NABU / Tom Kirschey)
  • What does NABU do and how did the organisation evolve? 

NABU is an NGO and was founded in 1899 by a visionary woman, Lina Hähnle, in the city of Stuttgart. At that time, the consequences of the industrial revolution had forced many people to move into the cities. That is why environmental pollution and the transformation of landscapes were already an issue. Lina Hähnle started a German bird conservation union which evolved later with the German reunification into the strong environmental organisation NABU. The internationally-operating union has today almost 900.000 supporters in Germany. New opportunities came up in states of the former Soviet Union, Africa and only a couple of years ago also in Indonesia. I was with the organisation as a volunteer long before I had my current job. People who study biology regularly do not end up in nature conservation. They end up in the pharmacy industry or genetic engineering, but not really focussed on populations or the functionality of ecosystems. I always wanted to contribute to nature conservation and here I am now.

  • What are your tasks in your everyday work at NABU? 

With my team in the headquarters in Berlin, we mostly work with international grants, donors and public funding institutions to restore crucial ecosystems in our focus regions like forests and peatlands. We organise the collaboration in different time-zones, different languages and different cultures. It is quite an interesting and challenging work. I never got frustrated or bored in the last few years.

The landscape of funding for our work is quite diverse. In the European Union, we are lucky because we have for 30 years the public funding program called “LIFE” by the European Commission. In one of these “LIFE” projects NABU is the coordinating beneficiary and I am very delighted to work with experienced partners such as NGOs, universities or private companies. During the last five years, we restored 5.300 hectares of degraded peatlands in five countries and measured the greenhouse gas balances (see here the results). Even today “LIFE” it is the most important source of funding. It requires comparatively huge grants to restore ecosystems as it is only possible on a landscape scale.

Our projects in Southeast Asia are mostly funded by the International Climate Initiative of the German Government and the KfW German Development Bank. In Indonesia together with our partners, we are responsible for managing Hutan Harapan – the Forest of Hope on the island of Sumatra – an area of almost 100.000 hectares. A hectare is 10.000 m² and it takes two days to surround this area by car with constant driving.

If you want to restore ecosystems, you need access to huge proportions of land. This can mean to purchase land or to get the land owner’s permission. In Indonesia, the forest land is all state-owned, but they hand out forest use licenses which include the right to manage the area for several decades. In the past, such licenses were only given to logging companies or for the conversion of forest into plantations. Our partners invented a new type – the ecosystem restoration license. Our hope is that within 80 years – that is the duration in our case – the Indonesian society will see the value of the forest with different eyes. In the meantime, our task is to keep the forest and to restore what has been lost in the past.

Why did you choose to work on ecosystem restoration of tropical rainforests and peatlands? 

Working in a rainforest was a childhood dream of mine. Later on, I learned that the climate implications of those ecosystems are beyond just being nice and colourful, they are crucial for our survival, even if we live thousands of kilometers away.

From an emission-point-of-view, Indonesian forests and peatlands as well as European peatlands are global hotspots. Number one emitter is Indonesia, and the second place is already Europe, the EU in particular. Inside the EU, Germany is at the top, because we have degraded more than 97 % of all of our peatlands. But degraded does not mean destroyed – we have turned the positive climate effect they usually serve for us around. We have now turned them from the net sink into sources of greenhouse gases, most importantly CO2. This needs to be reversed. If we want to become climate-neutral, there is no way around restoring each and every peatland. Not only in Indonesia, but also in front of our own door.

“Hahnenmoor” in Herzlake, North Germany in the region Emsland
  • What does climate change implicate? 

What is most worrying about the climate crisis is the magnitude of the events. There are so-called tipping points in the climate system. If we reach them, it is like with a cup of coffee which you push to the edge of the table, there is a point of o return, a point where the cup will indefinitely fall. And we should avoid getting near this tipping point. For example, if the Greenland the ice shield melts down to a certain elevation, it is all year warm enough to melt further and faster so that we cannot stop it by any measures. This would cause a rise in ocean levels of six meters which is out of our hands to be managed. If you add 6 meters, there is nothing left of the Netherlands and Northern Germany, but in terms of global population more importantly Bangladesh and Singapore. What we have called major catastrophe events which have been occurring every 20 to 30 years are now coming more frequently – draughts, floods or extreme winds. Ecosystems are very powerful allies in fighting the climate crisis and mitigating the effects: they buffer, they store carbon, they provide fresh water, they cool the landscape, they feed us. First and foremost, we have to cut all the fossil emissions such as oil, gas, and coal. The faster, the better. If we overshoot a certain point by inaction, the development will be stronger and stronger and we cannot stop it. People sometimes argue that ecosystem restoration and effective climate protection measures would be too costly. However, they ignore the immense costs of inaction.

Then, we have the natural carbon sinks which in the past have been deployed. Plants are absorbing carbon dioxide by photosynthesis from the atmosphere. Under certain circumstances, the ecosystems are able to store the captured carbon in the soil. If we extract wood from a forest, the carbon will be released into the atmosphere again. Instead, we should leave forests growing on their own and leave the logs in the forest.  Of course, we still need wooden products and it is clear that we have to find a good compromise. In comparison to forests, peatlands are much more powerful in the absorption of CO2 from the atmosphere and long-term storage in the peat. If we restore the net sink function of these ecosystems, this can also help us in mitigating climate change. 

The English sundew (Drosera anglica) can be found in wetlands and is a carnivorous flowering plant – it traps and consumes insects (photo credit NABU / Tom Kirschey)
  • Peatlands are nowadays more and more destroyed for agricultural purposes. Do we need a shift of mindsets in this regard? What is the problem with peatlands management nowadays?

Emissions from degraded peatlands are distributed quite unequally. For example, in Estonia, emissions from the industry and the transport sector are not as big as the emissions from degraded peatlands. But in other parts of the world, for example in Siberia or the Eastern part of Indonesia, all of the peatlands are still very pristine, they are still accumulating carbon and they are in natural shape. Globally speaking, 90 % of peatlands are still intact. The emissions result from “only” the 10 % of degraded peatlands. For now, we are still in a phase where we are over-exploiting and using peatlands which makes no sense also from an economic point of view. 

After the 2nd World War in Germany for instance, people suffered from starvation and the agricultural areas were reasonably expanded. Intact peatlands have been drained at a large scale especially in the 1960s and 1970s in the Eastern part of Germany. Nowadays there is no more economic or human welfare justification to exploit peatlands for overproduction and drive further the degradation of peatlands.

Drainage causes several ways of carbon export from the system. Firstly, the peat gets in direct contact with the air, oxidizes and transfers into CO2 going directly to the atmosphere. Secondly, there is also the so-called Dissolved Organic Carbon or Dissolved Organic Matter (DOC or DOM), long-chained carbon molecules as a by-product of peat degradation washed out through the draining ditch to the next river, flowing into the sea. The Baltic Sea is a good example as it is surrounded by watersheds coming from degraded peatlands. Decades of huge loads of DOC and DOM have polluted the sea and at some point, these carbon rich substances also oxidize. This results in so-called death zones of oxygen-free waters where no fish can ever reproduce. The breakdown of fisheries due to collapse of fish populations in the Baltic Sea is largely a long-term effect of continuous peatland degradation in the watersheds. We have to learn that the ecosystems are interacting with one another. Everything is connected.

Poland, Szczecin Lagoon
  • Why is biodiversity so important? 

Biodiversity is keeping ecosystems functional. Tropical rainforests are a good example. They are the most species-rich terrestrial ecosystems. A forest with a huge diversity of natural inhabitants is more resilient to any kind of external stress. We face a dramatic biodiversity loss. The more species we lose, the more functions we lose in the ecosystem. It is not a zoo where we put valuables in cages and try to maintain them. Ecosystems are crucial for our survival. We are not doing it for an orchid, a bird or a nice landscape. We are doing it for us. Can you imagine how people could argue if we can afford nature conservation and halt the biodiversity loss? We cannot afford losing more biodiversity.

Heather can grow not only on sand dunes, but also on nutrient-poor peatlands – it copes well with a high water table
  • What should we do instead of degrading peatland? 

The agriculture we are used to doing requires a drier environment. We have to learn how to do agriculture under permanently water-locked conditions. There is the special term “Paludi culture”, meaning to grow agricultural products on rewetted peatlands. 

There are numerous products that can be grown on rewetted peatlands. Cattle usually eat certain sweet grass species which require a dry environment. If we restore the peatland and make it wet again, the composition of the plant community will ultimately change, unfavorable for these grass species. Water buffalos can replace the cows because they are adapted to the plant communities which occur in wetlands. This would be a climate-smarter way of how agriculture is done. This is a solution for areas such as Emsland where more than 90 percent of agricultural soil is organic – peat or peaty soil. We need to find solutions for the farmers to keep their livelihoods, but in a smart way.

  • What is the problem when peat is extracted?

Under permanently water-locked conditions, biomass is added every year by the plant growth which is higher than the decay. After a while this added biomass is called peat. Peat from a climate point of view is an important carbon stock. It is a fossil resource like coal, gas, and fuel. In fact coal, lignite, oil and gas are geological deposits originated from peatlands. Peat is not a renewable resource because peat growth is a quite slow process. Extraction of peat means destruction of peatland. The problem is that peat is still seen as a resource and it is still legal to use it. We have to end the use of all fossil resources to mitigate climate change including peat.

In Germany, we extracted peat in the past. Nowadays, most of the peat we consume in Germany is extracted from the Baltic states. We also have to worry because the way we do Horticulture with peat consumption is now exported as a model to China.

The way we produce vegetables is devastating for peatlands. Even if we would all become vegetarians, our carbon-footprint is huge. It is a travesty where we can learn how absurd and unsustainable our lifestyle is. We ship peat from Lithuania to the driest parts of Spain. There, we grow salad and tomatoes in glass houses all year round and ship it back to the rest of Europe. This is ridiculous because the vegetables could also grow on more climate-friendly substrates.

Degraded peatland in North Germany
  • Which programs or initiatives do we need on the international level?

We need a shift of paradigm. At the moment for example in the EU, most of the budget is still spent for CAP – the Common Agricultural Policy, more than half of all the EU taxpayer’s money. If a farmer is rewarded from the common agricultural policy for draining a peatland, comparatively tiny projects for peatland restoration will not change the game. We need to shift the paradigm to a “polluter pays” system as we started it with the industry already: All the agricultural emissions need to be fully accounted for and people responsible for causing them have to pay. Internationally, there are lots of funding gaps. We need to shift away from climate-not-so-friendly agriculture and give value to farmers who want to contribute to climate change mitigation by accepting restoration of peatlands in their areas. This would be the key to success. 

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), to meet the goal of the Paris Agreement and its 1,5°C scenario report, all-natural sinks, including all peatlands and also including 97 % of the German peatlands, need to be restored by 2050 if we want to meet the goal of the Paris Agreement. It has not been sufficient in the past, especially if the EU aims to become climate neutral.

The Kusowo bog near Szczecinek in Western Pomerania is considered as one of the most valuable bogs in Poland (photo credit NABU / Tom Kirschey)
  • It does not make so much sense that there is a contradictory approach by the EU, on the one side to support farmers to conduct agriculture on peatlands, and on the other side trying to restore them. Where does this contradiction stem from?

Contradictory approaches and incoherent policies are always in place when we have conflicting interests. In the past, the value of peatlands as ecosystems has been underestimated for ages. For ages it just has been seen as a wet place with low economic value which is hard to work in. It takes an enormous effort to drain them and to be able to do farming there, often in history using prisoners and forced labor workers. Now it is different. We have just started to open our eyes and to see how valuable peatlands are. Not in terms of the economic value for the farmer, but the value for society and mankind. This is why we have to change the economic system, knowing that there are still interests of landowners and farmers and they will fight for their property rights and their resources. Ideally, the interests of society overweight personal economic interests of the individual.

  •  What would you recommend for us as activists and consumers? How can we support you? 

As a consumer, there are ways of climate-smart behaviour, such as buying alternative peat-free products so that your vegetables and flowers on the balcony can grow as good as they do with peat. This is an educational task where we have to raise more awareness among consumers. We need to speak with the industry so that they change their business models. Unfortunately I am convinced that on a voluntary basis phasing out of peat extraction is not possible, we need strict laws about it in the European Union at least and forbid extraction, import and export of peat immediately. Also, for further carbon footprint intense products like palm oil, we have good alternatives on the market and as a consumer, whenever we can we should avoid buying palm oil. But consumer’s responsibility has to go hand in hand with political guidelines and producer’s responsibility. For these changes political support is crucial as well.

  • How urgent is the action for the climate?

It is most urgent and a pity what is happening in the world. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, there have been strong signs of hope: Young climate activists like Fridays for Future emerged and apart from the deniers were heard by decision-makers. When I looked at the programs of political parties in Germany, before the federal elections last year, all parties except the AfD were committed to protect nature and to become more active for the climate. The people’s perception changed throughout the pandemic and the war. However, the biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis do not go away. We have to come back with our attention level to what is necessary and come back to where we have been and where we listened to the demands of the younger generations and Fridays for Future. I really hope they become more visible and better recognized. 

Yes, I hope that too. Thank you so much for the interview! 

Author: Julia Solbach

Editor: Julija Laurinaitytė

Photographs: Anna Joanna Solbach/Julia Solbach

Kyudo – the Historical Art of the Samurai

Imagine a sport where you have to stay as calm and focussed as possible. A sport where you follow a detailled choreography until you shoot an arrow. A sport where the perfection of movement is more important than actually hitting the target. Welcome to the world of Kyudo, the art of Japanese archery.

Using bow and arrow, the Samurai were able to shoot with pinpoint precision and undefeated elegance. After the introduction of fire weapons in Japan, archery became obsolete on the battlefield but continued to be a part of the Samurai training – as an art and philosophy. This is also when the term Kyudo developed, meaning “the way of the bow”. Yumi is the name of the Japanese longbow whose current form stems from the 15th century. Its length is adjusted to the body size of the archer and is approximately 2.20 m long. The bow is solely produced in Japan and is made out of bamboo. Pulling the bowstring weights at least 9 kg and can go up to 20 kg.

The athlete adjusts the string to the bow

This ancient tradition is upheld by various sport clubs all over the world. One of them is the Kyudojo Club in Frankfurt Main. Active since the 80s, they recently built their own beautiful wooden Kyudojo which is the practice hall for Kyodo. It is as if one enters a totally different world – calm and quiet as the sport (or shall I say mindset) itself. The training lasts two hours. During the break, everyone comes together and drinks tea. Tea is an inherent part of Japanese culture. Women and men wear the same clothing, except that women wear breast protection. Before shooting, the athletes follow a detailed choreography where each movement has its own purpose.

The arrows are equipped with real feathers. “It makes a huge difference“, says one of the athletes, “feathers stabilise the arrow“. The target stands outside the training house at a 28-meter-distance, the same distance as on the battlefield in the past. The archers shoot through the windows.

The distance always remains the same at Kyudo. Only beginners start at closer proximity aiming at straw blocs. What is needed to master this sport? “Patience and perseverance“, says trainer Andreas Naumann. He holds the 2nd Dan which means that he is advanced in the art of Kyudo.

According to the International Kyudo Federation, there are 10 Dan grades. For the accomplishment of the 9th Dan “the truth of Kyudo should be transparent“. The requirement for the 10th Dan is even not mentioned. So this sport is worth a try to find out the truth of samurai!

Author: Julia Solbach

Editor: Julija Laurinaitytė

Capturing the Zeitgeist of an Era – Interview with Opera Director Jochen Biganzoli

I have had the chance to ask Jochen Biganzoli various questions about the future of opera and why he chose the Kassel`s State Theatre for staging a Bach piece. About his artistic career: Biganzoli studied theatre and music science at the University Erlangen-Nürnberg in Bavaria. He worked as a director`s assistant before becoming an opera director himself. Biganzoli was nominated for the renowned German theatre price “Faust” twice, in 2020 for staging Wagner`s Tristan and Isolde as well as in 2016 for Schostakowitsch`s Lady Macbeth von Mzensk. His opera productions cover composers such as Puccini, Bach and Hindemith.

Biganzoli`s fascination with the composer Richard Wagner

What does Wagner mean to you? Biganzoli: “I try to make the complexity of a piece visible. First to find it and then make it visible. Naturally, at some point, I have to decide which interpretation I choose, because Wagner`s pieces are highly complex and offer many interpretations. The focus depends on the director`s personality, his or her own life experience, education and the director`s team. The reception history of a piece plays a certain role, because if we take a piece which is 150 years old, the world has changed since then. Our perspective originates in this time. All pieces from the 19th century come from a pre-Freud Area and since Freud, one cannot neglect certain things. Psychological aspects were only known unconsciously. Mozart was Freud pure, although he did not know him. With this in mind, we have to take into consideration the psychological perspective.”

How do you treat the aspect that Wagner is a known Antisemit? “In the 19th century, Antisemitism was a phenomen in society. There is a discrepancy between what Wagner writes about Jewish people and how many musicians where Jewish in his environment. I do not want to excuse any statement Wagner made, but we have to read his statements in the context of the times.

Opera in the past and present

I am curious about the development of music theatre and ask Biganzoli: What has changed over the years?

Biganzoli: “Carl Maria von Weber attached great importance to having an eagle owl with illuminated eyes by candlelight in the “Wolfsschlucht” (wolf`s ravine) in his opera Freischütz. At present time we have different possibilities with light and technology which, in my opinion, we are obliged to use if we want to go with the times.

The text is old – nowadays, things are expressed differently. In production, the modern narrative clashes with the old language. To renew the lyrics of an opera would be a too extensive change, however, I would wish for more freedom to change the narrative. Drama plays already tell classical pieces distinctly different.

Opera has strict rules, everything but the music is outdated. Mozart is still modern with his music, same as Wagner. There are composers whose music I would not describe as timeless. As a director of music theatre, the score is after all fundamental for me. Nonetheless, I would wish to be able to treat the score more openly. Different views exist in this regard. More conservative voices, usually conductors, say that the score is unchangeable. Formerly, composers changed the score when it was necessary like Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner. Also, contemporary composers add transitional music if necessary, e.g. for a first release. Baroque music is related to Jazz music. Changes and adjustments are part of the music. There are more radical approaches to the material too. As directors, we are not only responsible for the entertainment of the public, first of all, we are artists aiming for artistic development. Ideally, opera productions are capturing the zeitgeist of an era or even going beyond.

Future of theatre

According to Biganzoli, music theatre is in a dead end due to economic pressure. The audience is not so eager to tolerate experiments which may result in lower attendance. Due to Coronavirus, the habits of many people have changed. It is questionable if the attendance numbers will ever go back to normal when and if the restrictions are lifted. In January 2022 at Kassel`s State Theatre, the rule is that a visitor has to be either vaccinated or recovered from the virus as well as being tested negative on the same day. The theatre in Kassel has its own test station in front of the building. The number of seats is limited to 250.

Weihnachtsoratorium by Bach in Kassel

In December 2021, Biganzoli directed the Weihnachtsoratorium (Christmas Oratorio) of Bach at Kassel`s State Theatre. It was the first time that the composition was accompanied by a staging. Initially, Biganzoli rejected the offer to direct Weihnachtsoratorium, because he could not identify with it. However, the offer by Staatstheater Kassel`s artistic director Florian Lutz convinced him.

What intrigued Biganzoli was the space stage in Kassel named Pandaemonium. It is a scaffold on stage, precisely, on the sides of the stage. The construction was developed by Sebastian Hannack and has three levels where the public can sit in addition to the conventional audience seats. This is a great advantage in Covid times because more people can fit in. According to Biganzoli, the space stage represents one possible way of the future of opera. Music theatre in this way is approachable and as close and personal as possible. This is guaranteed by the space stage because one can see the singers and musicians performing from a three-meter-distance, you are almost part of the scene, the music affects you directly. It touches upon all senses and creates thus a lasting memory. It was a unique feature in Kassel until the end of December 2021 and one of the reasons why Biganzoli chose to stage Weihnachtsoratorium in Kassel. Another aspect was the given artistic freedom.

Biganzoli on his interpretation of Weihnachtsoratorium: “We told the story of a typical evening on Christmas day. Families of the higher middle class in Germany usually visit a performance during Christmas. So Weihnachtsoratorium is itself an integral part of Christmas.” A novelty was a choir of Kassel`s citizens on stage as well as the musician Bassem Alkhouri who sang and played the Kanun, a string instrument from the Middle East.

Part of Biganzoli`s team are costume designer Katharina Weissenborn and stage designer Wolf Gutjahr. Their upcoming production is Faust – Margarethe by Charles Gounod at the Staatstheater Augsburg. The premiere was postponed in 2020 due to Corona, but the premiere finally took place on 29 January 2022.

The audience

When do you know if you reached the audience? Biganzoli laughes: “You can never reach all the people. The ideal case is that those people who did not like the piece experienced altogether an exciting evening. Not in the sense of a thriller, but sharing the thrills of emotions. The high tension may even result in a concert of booing during the final applause which I experienced with TOSCA in Halle. That is fine for me.” Biganzoli tells me that he is one of a few directors who watch the premiere. I am surprised. “They cannot withstand the stress and nervosity“, explains Biganzoli. However, he enjoys seeing the staging, because he is interested in the audience`s reaction.

Purpose of theatre

Finally, I ask him if there is something he wants to communicate to the readers. “I try to bring the layers of a piece on the stage, not with a moralising undertone, but to give a chance to the viewers to see the piece through their eyes. For example, in Weihnachtsoratorium, I gave a variety of associations, and every person can interpret it in his or her way. Theatre has the unique chance to reflect the condition of society in a sensual way. I mean not only intellectually, but also emotionally. I try not to provoke emotions in the audience with music theatre, I try to make them feel uneased, concerned, ready to act upon their feelings.”

Thank you for the interview! 

Author: Julia Solbach 

Editor: Julija Laurinaitytė

Title photo: @Jochen Quast

Photos: Jochen Biganzoli (private use)