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Extinction Rebellion (XR)

Transformation is Not a Metaphor

By Jevgeniy Bluwstein - Political Georgraphy Institute, June 17, 2021

In this intervention I highlight an element that has been overlooked in this important debate about “progressive environmental futures” (Robbins, 2019, p. 1) – the dismantling of fossil capitalism. More still, I argue that some perspectives in this forum may even distract our attention from a more direct engagement with this – in my view – most urgent question of our time. Ultimately, I suggest that by not engaging this question head on, debates about “transformation” risk rendering it a metaphor.

Here, I am inspired by the influential critique of decolonial scholarship by Tuck and Yang (2012), who insist that “decolonization is not a metaphor.” Tuck and Yang (2012) maintain that while the decolonization of academic and educational institutions through the recognition and integration of alternative knowledges is important, this is not the central objective of decolonization. Writing from a settler-colonial context, the authors suggest that “[u]ntil stolen land is relinquished, critical consciousness does not translate into action that disrupts settler colonialism” (Tuck & Yang, 2012, p. 19). In a settler-colonial context, decolonization thus must go beyond the usual critique of epistemology and beyond calls for decolonizing knowledge and methodologies. Above all, land has to be given back and colonial property relations dismantled.

Although Tuck and Yang's intervention is specific to a settler-colonial context, and thus should not be generalized, it resonates with broader critiques raised against recent trends in decolonial and ontopolitical scholarship. For instance, Chandler and Reid (2020, p. 494) are frustrated with the exuberant attention to the “coloniality of knowledge” at the expense of paying due attention to “the coloniality of real inequalities and injustices in the world.” Relatedly, the late David Graeber sees a lack of engagement with material questions of slavery, class, patriarchy, war, police, poverty, hunger and inequality in scholarship that privileges multiple ontologies of being and epistemologies of knowing (Graeber, 2015).

Drawing on these perspectives about the limits of critique, here, I draw a parallel between decolonization that requires land repatriation and not just the decolonization of knowledge production, and a vision of transformation that requires the rapid, ruptural dismantling of fossil capitalism and not just the transformation of our understanding of socio-ecological limits. In this vein, a vision of transformation that is not a metaphor needs to go beyond questions and critiques of limits, technology, labor and growth (however illuminating they may be), and to engage more directly with political strategy, organization and praxis in the here and now. After all, what matters is “which strategies can actually work to address the environmental and social crises the world faces” (Bliss, 2021, p. 1).

But isn't addressing environmental and social crises exactly what the debate in this forum is ultimately about? Yes and no. Yes, because a post-capitalist future is central to both, a degrowth and a socialist modernist vision, although in different ways. No, because this forum has not touched upon questions of political strategy, organization, and praxis for short-term dismantling of fossil capitalism, even though both camps agree that capitalism is the single biggest obstacle towards progressive environmental futures. Hoping that a future world of degrowth or socialist modernism will get us beyond fossil capitalism by, say 2050, is akin to placing our hopes in not-yet-available negative-emission technologies. Put differently, if net-zero emissions discourses risk leading to mitigation deterrence and becoming a spatiotemporal fix for fossil capitalism (Carton, 2019), can some visions of degrowth or socialist modernism similarly risk leading to transformation deterrence? If these visions do not build on political strategizing for actively dismantling fossil capitalism, I do not see why fossil capitalism cannot continue to fix its crises, to overcome its internal contradictions, and even to appropriate some degrowth or socialist demands.

Try Filling Jails Before Blowing Pipelines

By Dave Jones - System Change not Climate Change, June 16, 2021

While the year 2020 saw numerous activist mobilizations, it was the police murder of George Floyd that instantly filled streets around the world with outraged protest. People marched, torched police stations, tore down statues, and confronted police in actions noticeable both for their dedicated persistence and the diversity of participants. There is no question this uprising was effective in certain ways; a much-needed spotlight has been focused on racialized, militarized policing, on the lack of accountability within police unions, and on the basic injustice of the carceral state in general.

And yet. Given the level of outrage, it must be acknowledged that little change has occurred at the policy, much less the institutional level. Commissions are formed, local reforms proposed, and a predictable backlash invigorated, replicating a long-established pattern of protest followed by bureaucratic inertia. Time and again we witness the absorption of movement energy into the grinding processes of the regulatory labyrinth.

As with gun control following school shootings, with climate action following extreme weather events, with antiwar protests in anticipation of invasions, with international trade deals, with Occupy or pipeline blockades, the pattern is clear. I am not saying that protest is dead. My argument is that these particular forms of reactive protest are no longer effective.

What I would like the Climate Movement to consider is a tactic that moves beyond protest as it is now conceived and practiced. This nonviolent, direct action tactic is best described as “fill the jails.”

While the mass civil disobedience of both anti-KXL in Washington DC in 2011 and Extinction Rebellion more recently were steps in the right direction, the historical examples of mass arrest I am promoting have a qualitative difference.

I first learned of “fill the jails” when researching the free-speech fights conducted at the beginning of the 20th century by the Industrial Workers of the World. From San Diego, California to Missoula, Montana, Wobblies defied local ordinances that banned impromptu public speaking. They gained the right to openly organize by calling in masses of fellow workers to be arrested and fill jails until the burden on local authorities became overwhelming. Another historical example is Gandhi’s India campaign, where he vowed to “fill the prisons” in order to make governing impossible for the British.

Perhaps the best-known example of this tactic being applied successfully is the Civil Rights Movement, especially the campaign centered in Birmingham, Alabama (the “most segregated city in America”), in 1963. This is how the large-scale, non-violent direct action was described by historian Howard Zinn:

“Thursday, May 2nd, is ‘D-Day’ as students ‘ditch’ class to march for justice. In disciplined groups of 50, children singing freedom songs march out of 16th Street Baptist church two-by-two. When each group is arrested, another takes its place. There are not enough cops to contain them, and police reinforcements are hurriedly summoned. By the end of the day almost 1,000 kids have been jailed. The next day, Friday May 3rd, a thousand more students cut class to assemble at 16th Street church. With the jails already filled to capacity, and the number of marchers growing, Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor, the Commissioner of Public Safety in charge of the police and fire departments, tries to suppress the movement with violence.”

Between April 3 and May 7 roughly three thousand were arrested and booked, filling not only the jails but an “improvised fairground prison … and open-air stockade” as well. This all took place in conjunction with a well-organized boycott of downtown businesses and public transport. Televised scenes of savage reaction by the racist police were broadcast throughout the stunned world and a horrified nation — which was then forced to confront the injustice.

Once again on sabotage and climate change

By Lars Henriksson - Climate and Capitalism, May 22, 2021

What should we do when airy political promises amount to little more than excuses for business as usual, and when the friendly climate protests have not prevented the world from heading towards a burning inferno? Submissively accept doom or take the climate struggle to a new level?

That Andreas Malm does not preach resignation will come as no surprise to those who know the author — activist and socialist since childhood and today well-known in the radical section of international academia. For those unfamiliar with him, the book’s title should dispel all doubt.

To stoically wait for doom is not an option for most of us, even if some claim to have drawn that conclusion. The book’s final section is a reckoning with intellectuals such as Roy Scranton and Jonathan Franzen who flirt with that standpoint.

For the rest of us, who either try to do something, or wish we knew how to do something, the question is: what do we do now? It is this question to which Malm devotes most of his book.

The attention given to the book ahead of publication has mostly concerned the question of sabotage as a method in the climate struggle. Despite the book’s provocative title, this is far from an anarchist cookbook but a thought-through — albeit impatient — contribution to the debate about strategy and tactics in the climate movement.

Malm raises a question posed by the British author John Lanchester: Why has the climate movement not resorted to violence? Given what is at stake is humanity’s survival, it is strange that nobody has started blowing up petrol stations or at least started scratching the paint on city jeeps, Lanchester states, in what Malm refers to as Lanchester’s paradox.

In the latter case, the effort is very small and would make these gas guzzling monster cars almost impossible to own in a city like London. Malm himself has a past as an SUV-saboteur of the milder kind, when the group The Indians of the Concrete Jungle in the early 2000s let the air out of gas guzzling luxury cars’ tyres in upper class neighborhoods. He takes this paradox — that the climate movement, despite knowing what is at stake, continues to be peaceful and well behaved — as the starting point for his argument.

Can sabotage stop climate change?

By Simon Butler - Climate and Capitalism, April 28, 2021

Despite the climate movement’s growth, epitomized by Extinction Rebellion and Student Strike for Climate, fossil fuel extraction continues to grow, and a safe climate can seem dismayingly distant. Given a choice between forgoing capital accumulation and tipping the whole world into a furnace, our rulers prefer the furnace.

In How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Andreas Malm asks how the climate movement can emerge from the Covid-19 hiatus as a stronger force. In particular, he questions whether the movement’s until now near-universal commitment to non-violent protest is holding it back. “Will absolute non-violence be the only way, forever the sole admissible tactic in the struggle to abolish fossil fuels? Can we be sure that it will suffice against this enemy? Must we tie ourselves to its mast to reach a safer place?”

To make his point, Malm cites examples of popular historic movements, some of which are invoked by today’s climate campaigners as examples of non-violent change. The overthrow of Atlantic slavery involved violent slave uprisings and rebellions. The suffragettes of early 20th century Britain regularly engaged in property destruction. The US civil rights movement was punctuated by urban riots. As part of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa Nelson Mandela co-founded the armed wing of the African National Congress. The Indian National Congress is known for its non-violent tactics but violence also played a role of the resistance to British rule from the Great Rebellion of 1857 until independence.

Malm absolutely rules out violence that harms people, but he wants the climate movement to include sabotage and property destruction in its plans.

He puts forward several reasons why these kinds of protests might help “break the spell” of the status quo. Targeting the luxury consumption of the rich in this way could help to stigmatize the notion that the rich can blithely condemn the rest of us to ecological disaster. Physical attacks on new CO2 emitting devices might reduce their use and make them less popular options for new investment. He also speculates that such actions could help bring together a “radical flank” of the movement, helping to win partial reforms by making elites more keen to compromise with the movement moderates.

Malm believes such tactics could make for some powerful political symbolism: “Next time the wildfires burn through the forests of Europe, take out a digger. Next time a Caribbean island is battered beyond recognition, burst in upon a banquet of luxury emissions or a Shell board meeting. The weather is already political, but it is political from one side only, blowing off the steam built up by the enemy, who is not made to feel the heat or take the blame.”

Malm’s arguments have been met with alarm in some quarters. In a review posted on the Global Ecosocialist Network website Alan Thornett says adopting the book’s proposals would “not only be wrong but disastrous” and anyone who did so would soon have “armed police kicking down their door.” He calls Malm’s argument an impatient “bid for a shortcut” resulting from “frustration compounded by the lack of a socially just exit strategy from fossil energy.”

James Wilt’s review in Canadian Dimension is even harsher: he says How to Blow Up a Pipeline “veers awfully close to entrapment” — a totally unworthy accusation. More to the point, Wilt says Malm doesn’t look deeply at the likely outcomes of his proposals, failing to mention any “planning for the inevitable backlash” and repression activists would face.

But, as Bue Rübner Hansen points out in a Viewpoint Magazine article, Malm’s “provocative title makes a pitch for viral controversy, but its contents are more nuanced and equivocal.”

When Does the Fightback Begin?

By Andreas Malm - Verso Books, April 23, 2021

Andreas Malm response to critics of How to Blow Up a Pipeline and asks when, and how, will the militant resistance movement emerge.

When writing interventions on contemporary events, one’s best hope is that comrades of all stripes will engage with them closely and critically. I have recently written two –Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century and How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire– and in return received an abundance of such gifts. Some have, naturally, raised serious objections to my arguments. Some of these concern vital strategic questions for the climate movement and the broader left. I therefore feel a duty to respond and elaborate on certain points, and I shall here begin with How to Blow Up a Pipeline. But, first, I should like to point out that the most productive discussions I have had about this book have not made it into text. They have come in talks with comrades in and around the climate movement, very much including, I should like to stress, given that I am rather critical of this organisation in How to Blow, people from Extinction Rebellion, who have struck me as highly astute and lucid in their views of the dilemmas of the struggle. Here I shall focus on critique presented in written form, after having restated and updated some of the basic propositions in How to Blow Up a Pipeline.

The Kaleidoscope of Catastrophe: On the Clarities and Blind Spots of Andreas Malm

By Bue Rübner Hansen - Viewpoint Magazine, April 14, 2021

The course of history, seen in terms of the concept of catastrophe, can actually claim no more attention from thinkers than a child’s kaleidoscope, which with every turn of the hand dissolves the established order in a new way. There is a profound truth in this image. The concepts of the ruling class have always been the mirrors that enabled an image of order to prevail. - The kaleidoscope must be smashed. 

- Walter Benjamin, Central Park1

Recently, I announced my intention to write a long essay about Malm to a circle of degrowth communists. One, a researcher and activist of US pipeline struggles, was exasperated at Malm’s apparently contradictory embrace of a strategy of pushing the capitalist state to do the right thing in Corona, Climate and Chronic Emergency (2020) and his stringent support of sabotage in How to Blow up a Pipeline (2021). Another friend, who is a veteran leader in the climate justice movement, responded that Andreas Malm has “single-handedly saved Marxism from irrelevance over the past few years”. High praise for Malm and a harsh reproval of Marxism.

The frustration with Malm’s lack of clarity and the praise for his ability to bring together Marxism and environmentalism are of a piece: they both attest to the enormous expectations generated by his work, and his willingness to place himself in a position of intellectual leadership. More substantially, they testify to the difficulty and importance of the synthesis he is working towards. 

Among environmentalists, a deep disillusionment with Marxism is common. The critiques are by now familiar: Marxism’s commitment to the unfettered development of the forces of production is attached to the idea of human domination over nature. Malm, as we will see, comes out of a very different tradition of Marxism, and one that has done much to demonstrate that Marx - unlike most of his 20th century readers - was an ecological thinker. Malm extends the theoretical and philological groundwork of John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett, and more recently Kohei Saito2, into a more empirical engagement with contemporary ecological problems, profused with a profound sense of political urgency.3

Malm is one of too few Marxists to center the question of what needs to be done in the climate crises, and certainly the most prominent. In short, Malm presents as a man of action, both in theory and in practice. His books detail organizing for the 1995 COP1 climate summit in Berlin, deflating SUV tires in Southern Sweden in 2007, and occupying a German coal mine with Ende Gelände in 2019. For Malm the academic, the question of action is also front and center: 

Any theory for the warming condition should have the struggle to stabilize climate - with the demolition of the fossil economy the necessary first step - as its practical, if only ideal, point of reference. It should clear up space for action and resistance (The Progress, 18). 

Malm’s practice may be described with a paraphrase of Gramsci’s old formula: optimism of the will, catastrophism of the intellect. “The prospects are dismal: hence the need to spring into action” (FC 394). It is this approach that has made his name as more than a scholar, but as a militant thinker, and it is this reputation that frustrates readers looking for strategic clarity. Is Malm a Leninist (and therefore authoritarian) or is he a movementist who is ready to try anything from lobbying the capitalist state to blowing up pipelines? The work of any prolific and wide-ranging writer will contain ambivalences, even one as committed to clarity and decisiveness as Andreas Malm. Not all these ambivalences are Malm’s alone: In our current ecological predicament unanswered questions abound: How can we come to want the abolition of the energetic foundation of our everyday life? How do we feel about the end of growth and progress? Is the state part of the solution or the problem? Such questions entail ambivalence because of the gap between what needs to be done, and what we want to do - given our attachments to the present state of things.

Malm develops a method designed to abolish ambivalence: herein lies the clarity of his work. His approach may best be described as kaleidoscopic: it orders the heterogeneous shards of history through the mirrors of his theory of history, while a singular eyepiece provides focus, and the basis for a unified political perspective. But this method only avoids ambivalence in theory. When it comes to practice, ambivalences reappear – but in the blindspot of theory. Reviews of Malm’s individual works may miss these blindspots and ambivalences, but once we read them side by side, we can begin to understand that they are structural to his work.4

Lobbying politicians is holding back the climate movement

By Alex James - ROAR Mag, April 13, 2021

In early January, Labour leader Keir Starmer tweeted about his commitment to tackling the climate emergency, sharing an image of him meeting with several climate groups. The screenshot revealed all the Zoom meeting attendees: the Queen’s Council and several other Shadow Cabinet members, alongside figures from all the major wildlife and environmental charities, from Greenpeace to the WWF. The tweet showed a motley crew — a collection of old and pale smiling faces, confident in their ability to tackle the climate crisis.

The tweet was quickly ridiculed. Many from the UK Student Climate Network, the group coordinating climate strikes, pointed out the advanced age of the participants, and contrasted this with the Labor leader’s refusal to meet with the student strikers. Others pointed out the audacity of a meeting on the climate crisis — which is itself a racist crisis enfolding in forms of racialized violence — comprised of only white “climate leaders.” Another point was the exclusion of Labour’s own climate leadership, and the Party’s refusal to include the Labour for a Green New Deal coalition. The charge was clear: these people did not represent the climate movement.

This is a clear reflection of Starmer’s lack of ambition on climate change, and his wider refusal to engage with grassroots groups. As Chris Saltmarsh, co-founder of Labour for a Green New Deal, rightly points out, many of these NGOs backed climate targets in 2019 which were embarrassingly small in ambition, effectively excluding serious climate justice concerns. These organisations have repeatedly fallen short on issues of global justice and have been outflanked in mobilization by groups like Extinction Rebellion and the UK Student Climate Network, who take a much more ambitious stance on the need for urgent decarbonization.

Yet against many who responded to the tweet and as someone who has worked and volunteered for several climate NGOs, I am skeptical whether the inclusion of grassroots voices and organizations would be a political improvement for the climate justice movement.

The obsession to engage with elected officials that permeates many organizations — from small to big, new to established NGOs — is detrimental to the political horizon of the climate movement. Instead, the strategic focus should be on the building of alternative institutions of collective power and decision making, outside of the state.

A Santa Cruz Green New Deal: Yes to Social Justice! No to Green Capitalism!

By Ecosocialist Working Group - Santa Cruz Left, March 6, 2021

Proposed as a green jobs and justice program for the next ten years, the Green New Deal is both a social movement to unite diverse social justice struggles and a comprehensive platform for addressing climate change. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced it in Congress in 2019, where it failed to gain traction in the Republican-controlled senate. But endorsed by organizations including the Sunrise Movement, the Indigenous Environmental Network, Climate Mobilization, Bernie’s Our Revolution, and DSA, the GND remains a powerful vision to organize around for a world worth living in.

Warning of an unfolding climate holocaust, massive loss of life, suffering, and financial devastation, AOC and Markey’s GND resolution notably joins decarbonization to social justice and equity. It proposes infrastructural renewal, economic investment for the wellbeing of all, and guaranteeing clean air, water, and land, in ways that repair the “historic oppression of indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth.” In 2019, AOC narrated an amazing short video (brilliantly animated by Molly Crabapple) that pictures what a GND-inspired future might look like.

DSA’s Ecosocialists (national) have added their own priorities, including democratizing control over major energy systems and resources; centering the multiracial working class in the just transition to an economy of societal and ecological care; demilitarizing, decolonizing, and striving for a future of international solidarity and cooperation; and decommodifying survival by guaranteeing living wages, healthcare, and affordable housing for all. As such, they join Indigenous and environmental, and racial justice social movements that stress the need for a bottom-up, inclusive, and democratized approach, rather than top-down governmental policy directives.

Joining the GND to the decolonial Red Deal, as proposed by The Red Nation, also makes compelling sense. As Nick Estes argues in Jacobin, “The GND has the potential to connect every social justice struggle—free housing, free health care, free education, green jobs—to climate change. Likewise, the Red Deal places anti-capitalism and decolonization as central to each social justice struggle as well as climate change. The necessity of such a program is grounded in both the history and future of this land, and it entails the radical transformation of all social relations between humans and the earth.” And while such a program must not only be intersectionalist but also global in scope, it’s less clear what the GND would mean on a local level and how it might offer a useful instrument to connect diverse regional struggles. But it’s on the local scale that we can most meaningfully engage with this all-encompassing struggle, in support of its national and international horizons.

Overwhelming odds, unexpected alliances and tough losses: how defeating Keystone XL built a bolder, savvier climate movement

By Nick Engelfried - Waging Nonviolence, January 29, 2021

When President Biden rescinded a crucial permit for the Keystone XL pipeline last week, it marked the culmination of one of the longest, highest-profile campaigns in the North American climate movement. The opposition to Keystone XL included large environmental organizations, grassroots climate activist networks, Nebraska farmers, Texas landowners, Indigenous rights groups and tribal governments. Few environmental campaigns have touched so many people over such large swaths of the continent.

The Keystone XL resistance was part of the ongoing opposition to the Canadian tar sands, one of the most carbon-intensive industrial projects on the planet. Yet, it came to symbolize something even bigger. Many activists saw stopping Keystone XL as a measure of success for the climate movement itself.

“Keystone XL isn’t just any project,” said longtime activist Matt Leonard, who coordinated several major protests against the pipeline. “Its defeat is a testament to what movement building and direct action can accomplish.”

A stroke of President Biden’s pen finally killed Keystone XL. But paving the way for this victory were countless battles at the grassroots level, where activists tested new tactics and organizing strategies that built a bolder, savvier climate movement. Some of the groups involved took radically different approaches to politics, leading to unexpected alliances and occasional bitter feuds. And there were losses — other major oil pipelines, including the southern leg of Keystone XL itself, were completed even as the fight over the more famous northern half dragged on.

Yet, resistance to the Keystone XL’s northern leg succeeded against overwhelming odds. While there is always a possibility it could be resurrected someday, chances of that happening anytime soon seem slim. Understanding how this victory happened — and what it means for the climate movement — requires examining how 10-plus years of tar sands resistance played out in far-flung parts of North America.

The environment movement we have, and the one we need

By James Plested - Red Flag, January 3, 2021

The ecological crisis—the disasters of earth, water, air and fire that are afflicting the global environment and the human society that depends on it—is a crisis of capitalism’s making. Karl Marx famously described capital as coming into the world “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt”. There is no doubt that, just as it came, so too must it go. If we fail, in the coming years and decades, to vanquish the beast of capital that is rapidly degrading Earth’s natural life support systems, it will propel us into a catastrophe that will make the rivers of blood and dirt of capitalism’s first emergence seem like a mere trickle.

Varieties of this apocalyptic vision are shared by many who regard themselves as part of the environment movement. What isn’t widely shared is the identification of capitalism as being the root of the problem. This is a major barrier to winning the radical change we need.

The core, destructive dynamics of capitalism—whether the insatiable drive to short-term profit and the accompanying pressure to minimise costs, the competitive and militarised global scramble for resources or the waste inherent in the chaotic operation of the market—lie at the heart of all the existential environmental challenges we face. As long as we allow our societies to be ruled by these dynamics, we may achieve a little progress here or there, but it won’t be enough to halt the overall slide towards disaster. 

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