Desperate measures: the ecological movement enters a brave new phase
Just Stop Oil ‘warm-up action’ at the BAFTAs. Photo credit: William Joshua Templeton
The police are not supposed to be here. Our softly-spoken group has just dispersed around the room for a pot-luck lunch when two officers stroll in and start asking questions. The air is busy with exchanged glances expressing shock and weary resignation. This meeting wasn’t advertised in public. Encrypted online chats are going to need re-forming, surveillance paranoia to be once again affirmed as plain necessity.
Such brazenly proactive police attention is remarkable for a group that’s barely three months old, and which has in that time done very little more than quiet meetings in community centres like this one. Its name is practically unheard-of. But everyone involved in Just Stop Oil is expecting that to change in all kinds of a hurry when – on a nearish date that’s still a close-kept secret – upwards of 1000 people disrupt oil and gas infrastructure across the UK, demanding that the government stop licensing fossil fuel expansion.
The UK government is considering approval for 40 new fossil fuel projects. The IEA’s Executive Director says limiting global warming to 1.5° means “from today, no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects”
This would be a history-making action at the best of times. But given the energy industry’s unprecedented challenges (and profits) in light of the war in Ukraine, a resurgent anti-climate movement from the right, and a government willing to re-write or just ignore the law in its crackdown on protest… It’s hard to imagine the fallout. Before stopping for lunch, our meeting ran an exercise imagining attacks from journalists. Someone expressed a fear that the army might be called in.
If this all sounds closer to the setup for a Netflix series than real life: it should. This is new and unsettling terrain for a new and unsettling world: what Just Stop Oil represents is nothing less than a next chapter in the struggle against ecocide.
It’s worth bearing in mind how the preceding chapter landed us here. In 2018 Greta, Youth Strike and Extinction Rebellion finally unsettled decades of inertia, soft denial and avoidance. Spurred by a noticeable jump in urgency from the hitherto dry-as-hell IPCC, these movements recognised and named the stark reality that business as usual, with all its heads of state and chief execs and talking heads, was hurtling us towards catastrophe – and that only a mass movement could bring about the necessary change of course. These movements made a lot of progress, which can more or less be summed up in the shift from ‘climate change’ to ‘climate crisis’. (Sadly we didn’t make it all the way to ‘ecocide’ – maybe next time...)
Were those the days?
Which is to say there was a change in language, but not a whole lot more. After the exciting early gains, momentum stalled. Governments and businesses gracefully transitioned from inaction to ‘acting’, greenwashing, and in conjunction with an ever-partial billionaire press and newly brutal police crackdowns, managed to press a narrative that now the situation was in hand, nothing to worry about. And then of course, the pandemic appeared. Covid posed massive problems for the 2018 movements, both in terms of logistics but so too in terms of narrative: the planet had a novel crisis to eschew the relatively boring and difficult climate change for. Most of us as individuals had a whole lot more to worry about than parts-per-million and species-loss.
Despite some not-unreasonable hopes that Covid might be just the jolt we needed to rethink society on a saner, fairer basis, it has turned out pretty much the opposite. Perspectives as rosy as the World Bank’s have decried the “missed opportunity”, as emissions not only remain but rise at a historic pace. This depressing turnaround achieved its purest form in Alok Sharma’s salty tears as COP 26 failed to meet its already delusional goals. In terms of policy momentum, we appear to have returned to 2017’s blissful inertia.
Unfortunately the biosphere has not accompanied us inside the time machine. David King, former Chief Climate Scientist to the UK, says we are already past the tipping point of 1.5°, and that ‘What we do over the next three to four years… is going to determine the future of humanity… We are in a very very desperate situation’. Or rather he said this – well over a year ago. The latest IPCC report can pretty much be summed up as ‘we’re fucked’. The Amazon, apparently, is nearing an apocalyptic tipping point. The list goes on; it’s difficult to stress enough that global heating, far from ‘not falling quite fast enough’, continues to accelerate. Unlike in 2018, though, none of this is getting much interest from policymakers or the public.
Have you heard of “megafires” yet?
For those with the tenacity to think and care a lot about this kind of thing, it’s pretty bleak. If 2018’s movements didn’t work, what will? More of the same but better-executed? Nothing at all? Some kind of… escalation?
That’s what a certain Swedish academic would suggest. In 2019 David Wallace-Wells was lamenting The Uninhabitable Earth; these days the book defining ecological discourse is Andréas Malm’s ‘How to Blow up a Pipeline’. Prestigious literary journals published glowing reviews of this explicit call to arms. Even two years ago, suggesting literal explosives as a means of fighting climate change would have earned uncomfortable coughs in polite society, and designation (alongside everybody in XR, ludicrously enough) as a terrorist. In these disaffected days after COP 26, it’s practically derivative.
Of course, nobody – including Malm and his reviewers – appears to be working on bombs just yet. But Malm’s fiery words capture a mood that’s shared by many who have tried and so far failed to mitigate the ever-realer ecological collapse. And growing numbers of outrageously courageous people are exploring tactics that might disturb the status quo’s determined complacency.
The harbinger, in the UK, was Insulate Britain. Extinction Rebellion has birthed ‘radical flank’ splinters before, but IB was something new in terms of scale, persistence, and – more than anything – narrative. Prior attempts to push the envelope – most notably with Heathrow Pause and actions on the Tube – saw major opposition from within the movement. IB was controversial, but ultimately XR and even Greenpeace came out in support. And, in a moment rich with implication, when nine IB members were sentenced to imprisonment for breaking a draconian injunction, over 100 members of Extinction Rebellion were inspired to do the same in solidarity.
Insulate Britain was a symptom of the desperate reassessments being made within the ecological movement – but it was very probably also a driver for this change, with its comparative success and sheer heroism convincing hundreds of others that escalation might just be the answer.
Insulate Britain was not an isolated incident. In the same month, Blockade Australia – also an XR splinter – disrupted $60 million in coal exports in the face of 25-year jail sentences. A few weeks later, Italy’s ‘Last Generation’ (you guessed it, also XR-linked) blockaded motorways. And back in the UK, we’ve subsequently seen the Tyre Extinguishers venture another step towards Malm-flavoured actions on fossil fuel infrastructure.
None of these tactics is completely new. In Germany, Ende Gelände has spent years disrupting fossil fuel instalments – partly, in turn, inspired by Climate Camp in the UK. Just Stop Oil explicitly identifies a heritage in the 2000s fuel protests. The Tyre Extinguishers are also part of a deflationary tradition.
Blockade Australia employed a combination of glue, abseiling, and immobilised cars to put a stop to coal exports
But there is something different in the air: these so-called ‘pop-up’ movements have the feeling of a growing wave. Where previous high-impact direct action up to and including prior XR splinters was generally considered the preserve of ‘anarchists’, policed and reported accordingly, the new initiatives can claim, increasingly credibly, to represent something much bigger.
Alongside the increasing enthusiasm/tolerance for direct action as espoused by Malm, we’ve also got the UN Secretary General exhorting us to “turn rage into action” – it’s hard to imagine he’s talking to stuffy policy-makers here, nor thinking of polite petitions. Meanwhile there’s a growing list of instances where juries have simply acquitted those involved in high-disruption actions for Extinction Rebellion, disregarding judges’ rejoinders that there was “no defence in law”. One judge even gave vocal support for ecological protest, telling defendants “you must succeed”.
These signs have been accumulating gradually and without much notice – but this unprecedently broad base of support for direct action could radically alter the new movements’ trajectory.
If Insulate Britain was the harbinger, Just Stop Oil might be the main event. The former saw around 100 people take action – the latter could be ten times that number. And while IB’s tactics and tricky messaging made snowballing growth improbable, the logic could be very different for its successor – not least because of its affiliation and proximity to XR’s own mass-action, starting in London on April 9. Zooming out, success at home would very likely join the burgeoning tradition of UK direct action being replicated internationally.
Success is far from guaranteed. There’s no question that Just Stop Oil represents a new direction for the ecological movement – but whether this direction ends abruptly with a police cordon, or blazes a trail for many more to follow, will very much depend on how the actions are conducted, policed and discussed. The Home Office has zealously pursued a reputation as tough on eco-mobs, and though the authoritarian police powers bill won’t be in effect in time for April, there’s hardly a shortage of powers to wield and possibly exceed in the meantime – not least when pressured by a press likely to reach new levels of venom in the context of Ukraine and worries over energy security.
On the other hand, these daunting prospects could play just as much in JSO’s favour as otherwise. Excessive policing has backfired on this government before – and even if this does turn out to be spurred on by white-hot tabloid rage, there is an all-important distinction between being liked and being effective. In some cases these two outcomes correlate, in some cases they’re mutually exclusive.
For JSO some kind of backlash is all but guaranteed, but the details will be pivotal: even a small proportion of ‘sensible’ types voicing support or sympathy – from NGOs to pundits to your mate down the pub – could make the difference between brutal repression and something more proportionate. And while the situation in Ukraine might justify a ruthless ‘national security’ response, this same perspective is no less applicable to arguments against the fossil fuel economy which funded this war and others, to say nothing of the ever-more apparent national security threat posed by ecological collapse.
The public reaction – not just on a support/oppose dimension but in its deeper nuances – will ultimately determine whether Just Stop Oil succeeds or fails. The sense that’s made or not made from the undeniable absurdity of where we find ourselves. It’s hard, and past a certain degree pointless, to guess how this will go – but there is growing evidence that people are reaching a new level of understanding and concern over government inaction on the climate. Direct disruption of the fossil fuel economy might just turn out to be an idea whose time has come.