Topic: ActivismThe Climate Movement is Transforming

As the XR ‘Big One’ gears up for a more moderate approach to mass protests this month, factions within the movement have turned to increasingly radical activities. Olly Haynes explores how the thinking behind climate-based direct action has evolved in the UK and beyond. Edited by Katie Urquhart and Jackson Howarth.

By Olly Haynes

In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was much discussion in Britain about the future of youth politics. The country’s economy was facing a crisis brought on by the pandemic, and the defeat of Corbyn in the 2019 election had crushed the hopes of many left wing voters. In The Guardian, journalist Paul Mason predicted that unlike the 2008 crisis, which produced the Occupy movement and eventually fed into left populism, the corona crash would push young people ‘towards the kind of climate bolshevism advocated by the Swedish [human] ecologist Andreas Malm.’

Andreas Malm argues that climate breakdown requires an ‘emergency politics’, and that sabotage and agitation are necessary tactics for environmental movements. In his 2021 polemic How To Blow Up a Pipeline, he made the case that environmental activist groups were too squeamish about damaging property, critiquing Extinction Rebellion (XR) for a ‘strategic pacifism’ that he suggested was not strategic at all. Drawing on historical examples like the Suffragettes and the radical wing of the civil rights campaign, Malm has argued that successful mass movements require a militant flank deploying sabotage and property destruction to normalise the less militant body of the movement in the eyes of the powerful. Ultimately, he advocates a justice-oriented environmentalism, to ensure the costs of the transition are mainly fronted by the wealthy, so the working class, particularly in the Global South, avoid paying for a crisis they did not create.

Malm has argued that successful mass movements require a militant flank deploying sabotage and property destruction to normalise the less militant body of the movement in the eyes of the powerful

A politics embodied in the professor’s writing has begun to take hold in parts of the climate movement, especially in the Global North. Malm himself has written about a ‘rising pattern of eco-sabotage’, citing axe-wielding activists in Canada who broke into the construction site of a pipeline and smashed much of its equipment. There are plenty of other examples, from the disarming of a cement production site in France, to the disruption of a construction site for an aviation fuel pipeline in the UK. In short, a wider ‘Malmification’ of the climate movement has been happening for a while, as activists have independently reached the same conclusions, or, as we shall see, are increasingly inspired by his work directly – with Malm himself beginning to play a role in this process (the most obvious example being the Tyre Extinguishers, SUV saboteurs inspired by How to Blow Up a Pipeline).

Still, beyond Malm, this tide has been rising for some time. Emboldened by politicians enabling the expansion of fossil fuels production, a similar shift has been visible in the case of XR. Just Stop Oil (JSO) came out of XR’s failure to achieve many of its aims, despite XR’s mass mobilisations. JSO represents an escalation from XR, at least in terms of tactical militancy. Where XR occupied public space and disavowed property damage, JSO has sprayed paint over buildings, blocked motorways and targeted famous works of art.

JSO has also hit fossil fuel infrastructure directly. Amy Pritchard was among protesters who dug tunnels beneath Navigator oil terminal in Essex, occupying them to prevent the distribution of oil. Pritchard was subsequently arrested with several other JSO members but decided that she wouldn’t stop protesting; ‘I stood up in the court and just spoke when I was not supposed to speak. The significance for me is taking my objections into other parts of the judicial system… So much of these systems relies on our consent and our compliance. As a collective we are starting to withdraw more and more of our compliance.’ Sociologist Dr Graham Hayes, found that during the 144 court proceedings he attended, about half of the XR protesters pled guilty immediately and he describes the rest that didn’t as ‘performatively sincere’ showing to the courts how seriously they took what they had done. Only one person did not cooperate. JSO, by comparison, are much less respectful of the institutions of the judicial system. One protester even glued herself to the perspex of the dock while in court. This represents a marked escalation in tactics, reflecting a wider shift towards greater militancy also embodied in Malm’s rising popularity.

Further afield, a similar pattern emerges. Upon hearing of the proposed construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, Jessica Reznicek, an activist in the Catholic worker movement, knew she had to act. According to Charlotte Grubb, a personal friend and member of the Support Jess Reznicek Campaign, Reznicek ‘exhausted all forms of sanctioned protests’, submitting complaints to the regulator, holding protest signs, engaging in a hunger strike and peaceful civil disobedience by locking herself to a digger. ‘She kept kind of elevating the tactics and at some point she realised nothing [was] enough.’ With this realisation, Reznicek and Ruby Montoya, a fellow activist, issued a statement explaining how they ‘then turned to arson as a tactic.’ They set fire to pieces of heavy machinery with gasoline-soaked rags in coffee cans and cut through several valves on the pipeline across Iowa and South Dakota with oxyacetylene torches between the months of March and May 2017. Reznicek and Montoya were arrested, and sentenced to eight and six years respectively as terrorists, under the ‘terrorism enhancement’ – a piece of legislation that can see perpetrator’s crimes as designated as terrorist acts if they meet certain conditions, such as attempting to influence the government. Reznicek’s journey from climate activist to pipeline saboteur is a case study in how despair with the conventional methods of politics can lead to radical action. Her cause has been championed by Malm and other figures in the climate movement, including lawyer Stephen Donziger and writers at the Intercept.

Reznicek’s journey from climate activist to pipeline saboteur is a case study in how despair with the conventional methods of politics can lead to radical action

There are many more instances – take, for example, the recent clashes at Lützerath coalmine in Germany – yet beyond spontaneous spikes in the tactical militancy of protest groups, a Malm-esque shift is manifesting across the breadth of the climate movement. One new project that explicitly aims to ‘Malmify’ the climate movement, strengthening the class politics of ecological activists, is the radical think tank Climate Vanguard, launched late last year. After founders Noah Herfort and Jack Johnson met Malm at a climate camp in Italy, he agreed to sit on the board, and his influence radiates from their first policy report. The Emergency Break draws heavily on Corona Climate Chronic Emergency to argue that dealing with climate breakdown requires an emergency politics that sees the property of fossil producers seized as the state adopts an attitude akin to Bolshevik War Communism, nationalising and dismantling the fossil economy. Focussing on the UK, the report proposes new legislation (such as the creation of a Fossil Capital Abolition Act and a public body to oversee the transition) and emergency quantitative easing. Its authors estimate a total cost of around £628 billion, which includes the paying down of the debt held by fossil fuel companies and providing compensation for pension funds (pension funds are taken as a proxy for economically vulnerable actors lashed to the mast of fossil capital and considers them the only investors deserving of compensation).

Herfort and Johnson want their research to feed into more anti-capitalist, strategic, speed-oriented politics. ‘We have hit 1.2 degrees warming, no one can claim ignorance at this stage’ explains Herfort. ‘Say we have dismantled the fossil fuel industry, but we are still at an extremely accelerated stage of climate change. It would seem preposterous that we compensated those who invested up to the last day… They’re criminals. They will be seen as criminals and they ought to be treated as such… a climate movement that doesn’t want to eat the rich as much as it wants a habitable planet, is a losing movement.’ 

Climate Vanguard’s proposals have chimed with others in this growing movement-within-a-movement. The UK wing of #EndFossil, an international movement of university occupations which, according to Novara Media, is gearing up to become ‘truly disruptive’, has adopted Climate Vanguard’s proposals into their demands. Youth climate protesters around the world have also endorsed the report, particularly for its analysis of the necessity of emergency politics. This, importantly, goes to show that this wider shift in climate politics is global, manifesting not only in the West, but also originating in places where the crisis is more often a horrifying reality than an abstract idea. Yusuf Baluch is an organiser from the Balochistan region of Pakistan where at least 300 people died last year in the floods. He told IFLA! that ‘people in the Global North talk about climate change, they think of reducing carbon emissions or [tackling] deforestation, but we need to look at things in a broader perspective… Where I come from in my community in Balochistan, there are lots of exploitation projects going on and it’s happening because of historical colonialism. Because of these exploitation projects [such as foreign-owned mines that have polluted Balochistan’s aquifers] people are losing access to clean drinking water, even before the floods. [In a small town near where I’m from] people died due to drinking contaminated water. When people talk about climate action and climate justice we need to connect dots and we need to make it an intersectional issue.’

This wider shift in climate politics is global, manifesting not only in the West, but also originating in places where the crisis is more often a horrifying reality than an abstract idea

Testimonies such as Yusuf’s accord with Climate Vanguard’s analysis of a coming ‘acceleration scenario.’ In other words, the increased frequency of extreme weather events will produce a coalition of actors who are more amenable to radical climate politics, embrace seizing property, and are less squeamish about sabotage. Although the report does not go into great detail about what this coalition would look like, Climate Vanguard suggests that it would involve the further radicalisation of groups like XR and Just Stop Oil. Their analysis is similar to James Schneider of Progressive International, whose recent book Our Bloc, suggests that the intensifying crises of inequality and climate change could forge (among other things) an extra-parliamentary bloc capable of forcing the hand of governments.

Bibi Elberse, an organiser with JSO, also endorsed CV’s report: ‘climate deniers or people who don’t understand the severity of the situation come back to us and say ‘well you don’t have an alternative’ so to have this report on nationalising the fossil fuel industry is really great.’ One of the perennial criticisms of the environmental movement in the UK is that it is largely confined to white, middle-class people and that its politics reflects this. Climate Vanguard’s intervention appears to be part of a shift towards a more class-oriented climate politics. Elberse adds ‘I’ve definitely seen a shift’ – suggesting that understanding of the need to address class issues is deepening in environmental circles.

While the centre and the far-right are also capable of creating an emergency politics to adapt their worldview to the changing circumstances of climate breakdown, the class consciousness of the environmental movement seems to be deepening, with groups like Just Stop Oil becoming a regular presence at cost-of-living rallies and RMT picket lines, and outfits like Climate Vanguard aiming to inject a Marxist analysis of capitalism into the situation. As we get closer and closer to 1.5 degrees warming, it seems likely that we can expect more in the climate movement to embrace radical tactics and emergency politics. Paul Mason’s prediction of widespread eco-leninism may yet come to pass.

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