Editor’s Note: The natural world is dying and time is running out. DGR believes it is necessary to take any action possible to stop the destruction of the natural world. We believe sabotage of key infrastructures are more effective than social movements to bring the industrial civilization (and its death drive) down. In these dire times, we are glad to see increasing adoption of and advocacy for eco-sabotage. Fear that these actions will lead to further hostility from the powerful against the environmental movement are baseless. The powerful (including in UK) are already hostile to the environmental movement and the natural world. Any impact on hostility from the powerful is minimal. However, when it comes to tactics and strategy, context matters. No tactic can be judged as “effective” or “ineffective” in isolation. Goals, assumptions and political circumstances must be considered before selecting methods. As such, we think target selection is critical in evaluating an act of ecosabotage. Pipelines that transport oil are an example of strategic target selection. Windows of organizations linked to fossil fuels are not. Smashing windows or other similar small-scale acts of minor eco-sabotage may be useful for training and propaganda but it does little to challenge the power structure. Minor acts of eco-sabotage may be useful in drawing attention to the issue, by giving media attention to the issue (which is not guaranteed). DGR advocates to move beyond social-political goals and into physical material ones: challenging the power structure that enables destruction of nature through strategic dismantling of global industrial infrastructures. DGR also follows security culture. We maintain a strict firewall between underground action and aboveground organizing. That’s why, as an aboveground organization, we do not engage in any forms of underground action, nor do we know about any underground actions except through information published elsewhere. This article was originally published on opendemocracy.net
By Jack McGovan/Open Democracy UK climate activist group Pipe Busters first broke into the construction site for the Southampton to London Pipeline (SLP) in June. Using an array of carefully selected tools, from bolt cutters to a circular saw, they damaged several sections of uninstalled pipeline and a construction vehicle. This wasn’t a random act: the pipeline’s main function is to supply Heathrow with aviation fuel. “Aviation is a planet killer,” said Pipe Busters in an emailed statement. “Pipe Busters act to halt the expansion of flying that the SLP would make possible.” https://twitter.com/StopTheSLP/status/1539609635002400771 In a year in which heat records were smashed across the globe, a new wave of climate activists seems to have simultaneously begun its own campaign of breaking things. During the summer, Just Stop Oil activists destroyed several petrol pumps on the M25, while This Is Not a Drill smeared black paint on buildings and smashed the windows of organisations linked to fossil fuels. The disruption has continued into the autumn. Last week, Just Stop Oil threw black paint on Altcourse prison in Liverpool, in protest at one of their number being held in custody. On Monday, This Is Not a Drill’s website reported that campaigners had broken the front windows of the Schlumberger Cambridge Research Centre at Cambridge University, to draw attention to the recent disastrous flooding in Pakistan. Outside the UK, the French arm of Extinction Rebellion made the news for filling golf course holes with cement. Another group, the Tyre Extinguishers, have started a crusade against SUVs in urban environments across a number of countries by deflating their tyres. Not that long ago, climate activism made the headlines for school children skipping class to protest, so these more radical tactics seem to mark a turning point.
“I’ve tried all the conventional main means of creating change – I’ve had meetings with my MP, I’ve signed petitions, I’ve participated in public consultations, I’ve organised and taken part in marches,” says Indigo Rumbelow, a Just Stop Oil activist. “The conventional ways of making change are done.” Marion Walker, spokesperson for the Tyre Extinguishers, added: “We want to live in towns and cities with clean air and safe streets. Politely asking and protesting for these things has failed. “The only thing we can do is make it impossible or extremely inconvenient to own [an SUV].” The need for urgent action on the climate is not in doubt. These campaigners are frustrated by what they see as a lack of meaningful steps taken by governments to stem the flow of carbon into the atmosphere. Despite the need to move away from fossil fuels, for instance, the UK government recently opened up a new licensing round for North Sea oil and gas. Andreas Malm, associate professor in human ecology at Lund University in Sweden, made the case for sabotage as a legitimate form of climate activism in his provocative 2021 book ‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline’ – and he seems to have inspired others to follow his lead. Deflating SUV tyres, for example, is something Malm writes about and says he has done in the past. But is breaking stuff – temporarily or otherwise – really an effective form of action for a movement trying to communicate on such a serious issue? “Coordinated, sustained social movements that do destroy property tend to be pretty effective over the long term,” says Benjamin Sovacool, professor in energy policy at Sussex University. Sovacool highlights three global movements – the abolition of slavery, the prohibition of alcohol and the civil rights movement – that used violence, including destroying property, to achieve their goals. “Some work in sociology even suggests that violent social movements are actually more effective than non-violent ones,” he adds. In his own paper, Sovacool cites research from the late 20th century that looked into US social movements, and found that American activists in the 1980s who were willing to use violence were able to reach their objectives more quickly than those who weren’t. He goes on to describe a number of actions that could fall under the umbrella of violence, from destroying property through to assassinations and bombings. Others refer to property destruction as “unarmed violence”, and research suggests movements that adopt this specific style of violent tactic are more successful than others. Movements highlighted as having used unarmed violence include the Chuquisaca Revolution in 1809, and the overthrowing of the military dictatorship in Argentina in 1983. But there isn’t a consensus. Other research looking at similar kinds of movements comes to a different conclusion, indicating that violent tactics are less successful in specific cases, such as those seeking regime change. For any kind of action to have an impact, though, it has to be noticed. German climate movement Letzte Generation, part of the international A22 network that includes Just Stop Oil, sabotaged a number of fuel pipelines across Germany this spring – more than 30 times in total, the group claims. “We asked ourselves, what can we do to really put pressure on the government to give us a reaction towards our demands?” says Lars Werner, who was involved in the action. “We did it publicly – it wasn’t an action that we wanted to hide from.” But despite their enormous logistical efforts, the media coverage was underwhelming. The corporations targeted didn’t react publicly, either. “The government could ignore what we were doing because there wasn’t much attention,” says Werner. Following the action, the group reverted to its old tactics of blocking roads.
Accountability or anonymity?
Indigo Rumbelow is keen to highlight the importance of accountability – showing names and faces – to Just Stop Oil’s activism. Other groups, such as the Tyre Extinguishers, prefer to remain anonymous. “We’re trying to change the narrative around fossil fuels,” says Rumbelow. “We’re not trying to materially stop fossil fuels – we don’t have enough people, resources or power for that. “But by having our face attached to the action and being able to explain, ‘I did this and I believe that I am right because it’s the only right thing to do’ – that’s how we’re going to change the political story,” she says. Choosing to remain anonymous, and not being accountable for your actions, can also be risky. “If you put a mask on, there’s the danger of labelling those people in masks as terrorists,” says Laurence Delina, assistant professor in environment and sustainability at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He adds that this can be taken advantage of by others, such as fossil fuel interests, to demonise activists and undermine their message.
Those on the frontlines of resource extraction, however, don’t have the privilege of being able to decide whether they want to be accountable or not. Many Indigenous communities – such as the Wet’suwet’en, Pacheedaht, Ditidaht, Mapuche and Sioux peoples across the American continent – have used their bodies to obstruct pipelines, as well as logging and mining vehicles, that would otherwise destroy their lands. Some have resorted to arson to protect their way of life. Not only do these communities have fewer options; retaliation is usually more severe too, sometimes deadly. A Guardian investigation revealed in 2019 that Canadian police had discussed using lethal force against Wet’suwet’en activists blocking the construction of a gas pipeline. Last year, Global Witness reported that 277 land and environmental activists were murdered in 2020 for defending their land and the planet. Most of these incidents occurred in the Global South. Despite differences in opinion, there is a consensus among Malm, Walker and Rumbelow that sabotage, if used, would be most successful as part of a broader movement – that it is one tool in a wider arsenal, not the answer in itself. Delina thinks that sabotage is a legitimate tactic, but only in situations where all other avenues of action have been explored, emphasising that he thinks non-violent actions are preferable. Sovacool doesn’t advocate for sabotage, but agrees that a multiplicity of tactics is useful, and that it’s important for us to be able to talk about how successful sabotage has been in the past. “I think each person has to decide on their own threshold for action,” he says.
Featured image: Sabotage of a train in Copenhagen on March 27, 1945 by National Museum of Denmark via Picryl
I disagree with the opinion that wearing masks is equated with “terrorism” — a term that those in power often use, when what they really object to is anonymous resistance.
Having been involved in many protests, I have long believed that trying to be arrested is much less effective than attacking the power structure in ways it can’t respond to.
Diring the Vietnam War, for instance, I thought it was silly of the so-called “Catonsville Nine” to attack a Selective Service office(i.e., the bureaucracy that drafted men into the military), and wait there to be arrested. The publicity they got showed that Catholic clergy were willing to sacrifice their careers to stop the war. But in the long run, they could have achieved more — and been taken much more seriously — if they had simply announced that their members included the clergy, while going on to attack other war industry targets.
That same year (1968), I had a long conversation one evening with an SDS leader, who had concluded that peaceful, aboveground protests had done little or nothing to end the war.
Seventeen months later, that same woman, Cathy Wilkerson, made headlines as one of the founders of “Weatherman” (later the “Weather Underground”), when a bomb they were making exploded during assembly, killing three other members of the group.
Weatherman used that failure to reorganize, adopting a strategy of exclusively attacking property, while prohibiting potentially lethal attacks on people.
As a result, Weatherman remained in the news for most of a decade (with bombings that included the Pentagon, a police station, and a court house), while harming no one. They also inspired thousands of other bombings (including one of my own), which were often very effective. During that entire period, however, only one such bombing resulted in a death (and it had nothing to do with Weatherman or the Weather Underground). And though several W.U. members spent years on the FBI’s “most wanted list,” only two served any real prison time (Wilkerson, for illegal possession of explosives, and Kathy Boudin, for involvement in a homicide, carried out by another group).
That said, I agree that the airline and fossil fuel industries are prime targets for sabotage — with two critical caveats: Actions against air traffic must concentrate on preventing flights, rather than doing anything that might cause an aircraft to crash. And anything such as pipeline sabotage must avoid polluting the land and water with fuel spills. Environmentalists will do absolutely nothing for the environment by causing environmental destruction.
In our activism, it is good to remember the words of the Episcopalian cleric, who spoke at the National Cathedral in Washington, at the memorial service for the victims of the “9/11” attacks.
Speaking to a congregation that included President Bush, he referred to the retaliatory attacks by the military that were sure to follow, praying that, “As we act, let us strive not to become the evil that we deplore.”
“Fear that these actions will lead to further hostility from the powerful against the environmental movement are baseless.”
It’s not hostility from the powerful about which we’re concerned; as you said, they are already very hostile toward us. It’s hostility from regular people, who will be furious if they lose things like light, refrigeration, and heat because of attacks on infrastructure. Sure, attacks like this FEEL good because we oppose industrial society. But what if these attacks create a major backlash against the natural environment, as in “I don’t give a damn about the birds or trees or land, I need my light, heat, and refrigeration!” Modern humans don’t know how to live without modern industrial conveniences, and I have no doubt that they would freak out if those conveniences were suddenly removed instead of this being a voluntary and gradual process.
If sabotaging industrial infrastructure would make the Earth better for all the life here, then I’m all for it. But if it ends up causing more harm than good, then it’s bad strategy. It would obviously be exponentially to infinitely better to CONVINCE people to start doing the right thing and stop doing all the wrong ones when it comes to their lifestyles that affect the Earth and the life here. This of course is a very difficult and long-term solution, and it might not even be possible. But forcing changes on people that they don’t want only works for the rich & powerful, and we’re at the opposite end of that spectrum.
I strongly disagree that property destruction is violence. Harming or killing the Earth or anyone who lives here, human or nonhuman, is violence. Driving is violence, property destruction is not. That was the consensus position of all in attendance at a debate on this question in San Francisco 15-20 years ago.