Editor’s note: In these dire times, we are glad to see increasing adoption of and advocacy for eco-sabotage. 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.
In the political context of 2022 Britain, the actions of the eco-sabotage group “Tyre Extinguishers” may be amplifying political pressure to reduce carbon pollution and curtail the hegemony of the automobile and building a cultural acceptance for more drastic illegal actions on behalf of the planet. This type of small-scale act of minor eco-sabotage may also be useful for training and propaganda. This is the best case outcome.
A more pessimistic view is that these actions could lead to an upper-class backlash, further empower surveillance and repression against environmentalists, and put activists at risk within the legal system. However, we largely discount this interpretation, as the upper classes are already hostile to environmental action, this type of illegal action would likely lead to minimal punishments if prosecutions did take place, and police in Britain are already harassing, infiltrating, and disrupting environmental movements.
A more valid critique—made in the spirit of solidarity—is that these actions are hitting the wrong targets and are inadequate to address the crisis we are facing. Halting global warming and reversing ecological decline will likely require massive, coordinated eco-sabotage against industrial infrastructure—not just individual cars. In that sense, these actions may represent a failure of target selection when compared to the Valve Turners or the DAPL eco-saboteurs.
The Tyre Extinguishers chose their targets based on the idea that pressure on governments can halt the climate crisis and the destruction of the planet. We at Deep Green Resistance put no faith in this line of reasoning; the UK government has not defended the planet thus far, and there is no evidence that it will. Based on this divergent analysis, our goal is different. Rather than political-social, our goal is physical-material: we advocate for strategic dismantling of global industrial infrastructure.
Please share your thoughts in the comments.
By and / The Conversation
A new direct action group calling itself the Tyre Extinguishers recently sabotaged hundreds of sports utility vehicles (SUVs) in various wealthy parts of London and other British cities. Under cover of darkness, activists unscrewed the valve caps on tyres, placed a bean or other pulse on the valve and then returned the cap. The tyres gently deflated.
Why activists are targeting SUVs now can tell us as much about the failures of climate policy in the UK and elsewhere as it can about the shape of environmental protest in the wake of Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain.
The “mung bean trick” for deflating tyres is tried and tested. In July 2008, the Oxford Mail reported that up to 32 SUVs were sabotaged in a similar way during nocturnal actions in three areas of the city, with anonymous notes left on the cars’ windscreens.
In Paris in 2005, activists used bicycle pumps to deflate tyres, again at night, again in affluent neighbourhoods, again leaving anonymous notes. In both cases, activists were careful to avoid causing physical damage. Now it’s the Tyre Extinguishers who are deflating SUV tyres.
Though the actions led by the Tyre Extinguishers have numerous precedents, the group’s recent appearance in the UK’s climate movement does mark a change of strategy.
Extinction Rebellion (XR), beginning in 2018, hoped to create an expanding wave of mobilisations to force governments to introduce new processes for democratically deciding the course of climate action. XR attempted to circumvent existing protest networks, with its message (at least initially) aimed at those who did not consider themselves activists.
In contrast, activists in the Tyre Extinguishers have more in common with groups that have appeared after XR, such as Insulate Britain, whose members blockaded motorways in autumn 2021 to demand government action on the country’s energy inefficient housing. These are what we might call pop-up groups, designed to draw short-term media attention to specific issues, rather than develop broad-based, long-lasting campaigns.
After a winter of planning, climate activists are likely to continue grabbing headlines throughout spring 2022. XR, along with its sister group, Just Stop Oil, threaten disruption to UK oil refineries, fuel depots and petrol stations. Their demands are for the government to stop all new investments in fossil fuel extraction.
The Tyre Extinguishers explicitly targeted a specific class of what they consider anti-social individuals. Nevertheless, that the group’s action is covert and (so far at least) sporadic is itself telling.
In his book How to Blow up a Pipeline, Lund University professor of human ecology Andreas Malm asked at what point climate activists will stop fetishising absolute non-violence and start campaigns of sabotage. Perhaps more important is the question that Malm doesn’t ask: at what point will the climate movement be strong enough to be able to carry out such a campaign, should it choose to do so?
Given the mode of action of the Tyre Extinguishers, the answer on both counts is: almost certainly not yet.
The moral economy of SUVs
For now, the Tyre Extinguishers will doubtless be sustained by red meat headlines in the right-wing press. It’s still probable, however, that the group will deflate almost as quickly as it popped up: this is, after all, what has happened with similar groups in the past.
The fact that activists are once again employing these methods speaks to the failure of climate policy. Relatively simple, technical measures taken in the early 2000s would have solved the problem of polluting SUVs before it became an issue. The introduction of more stringent vehicle emissions regulations, congestion charging, or size and weight limits, would have stopped the SUV market in its tracks.
SUVs are important because they are so much more than metal boxes. Matthew Paterson, professor of international politics at the University of Manchester, argues that the connection between freedom and driving a car has long been an ideological component of capitalism.
And Matthew Huber, professor of geography at Syracuse University in the US, reminds readers in his book Lifeblood that oil is not just an energy source. It generates ways of being which become culturally and politically embedded, encouraging individualism and materialism.
Making SUVs a focal point of climate activism advances the argument that material inequality and unfettered individual freedoms are incompatible with any serious attempt to address climate change.
And here lies the crux of the conflict. The freedom of those who can afford to drive what, where and when they want infringes on the freedoms of the majority to safely use public space, enjoy clean air, and live on a sustainable planet.
Graeme Hayes is a reader in Political Sociology at Aston University. Oscar Berglund is a lecturer in International Public and Social Policy at the University of Bristol.
By Max Wilbert
The woman places an arrow on her bow, draws to her cheek, and fires.
The arrow arcs over a high-voltage electrical transmission line, carrying a non-conductive rope. She jogs to her arrow, and begins to reel in the rope. As she pulls it over the lines, a conductive cable is revealed to be attached to its end. As the cable bridges the three-phase power lines, a short-circuit ripples down the lines. Miles away, an aluminum smelter grinds to a halt.
This is the opening of the new film Woman at War from director Benedikt Erlingsson. The film follows a one-woman ecosabotage campaign against the Icelandic aluminum industry.
Whenever I watch a film, especially a film grappling with the ecological crisis, I expect it to disappoint me. Ethan Hawke’s First Reformed, for example, started with a promising premise and then veered into self-flagellation and misogyny.
Woman at War, however, did not disappoint. Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir gives a masterful performance as Halla, a happy middle-aged woman who appears content with her life as a choir director in an Icelandic city. She moves about her life with grace and serenity, riding her bicycle through the streets, swimming in the ocean, and talking with her sister and other friends.
But Halla leads a double life. Her apparently tranquil existence hides her true mission, a campaign against heavy industry that is destroying Iceland. A portrait of Nelson Mandela hangs on her wall at home, a constant reminder that yesterday’s terrorists may become the freedom fighters of history. This is, no doubt, a reference to the ANC sabotage campaigns that Mandela helped to lead in Apartheid South Africa beginning in 1961.
In his testimony when he was sentenced, Mandela describes his reasoning: “I do not deny that I planned sabotage,” he said. “I did not plan it in a spirit of recklessness nor because I have any love of violence. I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation and oppression of my people by the whites.”
The same reasoning is true for eco-saboteurs today. In the era of climate chaos and government inaction, “extreme” acts like ecosabotage are not extreme at all. They are, in fact, some of the most reasonable responses imaginable.
The argument for sabotage in Woman at War is as undeniably real as the industry it tackles. Iceland’s abundant geothermal energy and hydropower extraction give it very low electricity prices, and has made it a global hot spot for aluminum smelting. The three aluminum smelters in Iceland use a full 73 percent of all electricity generated in the country.
Their power is supplied by geothermal energy harvesting facilities as well as a highly controversial hydroelectric dam that was opposed by environmental and community groups in the courts, via protest, and with direct action and ecosabotage. The smelters themselves are major polluters linked to birth defects, cancer, and bone deformations in nearby communities.
In the film, Halla’s attacks are not spontaneous. Like Mandela, she has obviously conducted a rigorous assessment of the situation. Her actions are meticulously planned. She receives intelligence from a friend high in the Icelandic government. She operates carefully, intelligently, implementing reasonable security precautions while avoiding wholesale paranoia.
At one point, Halla evades her face being recorded by a drone by wearing a Nelson Mandela mask, in an echo of Mandela’s words in his book Long Walk to Freedom: “Living underground requires a seismic psychological shift,” Mandela wrote. “One has to plan every action, however small and seemingly insignificant. Nothing is innocent. Everything is questioned. You cannot be yourself; you must fully inhabit whatever role you have assumed… The key to being underground is to be invisible.”
Like any effective underground figure, she follows the maxim that “Clandestine operational activity must be compartment[aliz]ed, it must be planned, it must be short in duration, and it must be rehearsed (or at least, composed of habitual actions).”
Rebecca Solnit, who has written some wonderful things, critiques Woman at War, writing that “our largest problems won’t be solved by heroes.” But Solnit then lauds Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, an organization which (like the entire American environmental movement) has failed to stop even the growth of fossil fuel burning. McKibben’s entire approach hinges on a transition to green technology that, as I explain in my forthcoming book Bright Green Lies, has thus far failed to reduce emissions even by a fraction.
In contrast, eco-sabotage groups like MEND (the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) have reduced oil output in Nigeria, Africa’s largest producer, by up to 40 percent on a sustained basis.
So which approach is really effective? Show me a country in which mass action has significantly reduced carbon emissions, and perhaps Solnit’s argument would hold more weight. Just two people conducting eco-sabotage against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) were nearly as effective in slowing the construction as tens of thousands were at Standing Rock. Imagine if a few more people had joined them. And a few more. And more.
As director Benedikt Erlingsson said of Halla in a recent interview, “She’s not a terrorist, she’s not creating terror, she’s not harming people. She’s only sabotaging structures. But she is doing what all fighters have been doing: for non-violent protest to work, it always needs to have an economic fist.”
Petitioning those in power to change things simply isn’t working. To have a chance of planetary survival, we need the most direct of direct actions.
Practically, there are a few lessons to be learned from Woman at War. For example, the film showcases perhaps the high end of effectiveness for a single saboteur. By acting in coordinated groups or securely linked cells, a larger number of people could be more effective. Additionally, the film shows the importance of building a culture of resistance. Halla is saved early on by a nearby farmer who detests the transmission lines and police crisscrossing the land his family has lived on for a thousand years. This element shows the importance of building a support network that can house, feed, transport, and otherwise support underground resistance—and won’t ask too many questions.
There is much to love about this film. Aesthetically, it is beautifully done. The music is superb. The Icelandic tundra, glaciers, rivers, hot springs, and stones are a presence all their own, and Halla inhabits this landscape throughout, repeatedly pressing her face into the thick moss as if into the embrace of a dear friend. She also demonstrates quite clearly that, in an asymmetric struggle, bushcrafts, physical fitness, and wilderness travel skills are a serious advantage for clandestine eco-resistance.
Woman at War bypasses American sexualization, casting a strong female lead acting on her own terms, without a hint of objectification. It even tackles prison well, showing that (to quote Mandela once again) “The challenge for every prisoner, particularly every political prisoner, is how to survive prison intact, how to emerge from prison undiminished, how to conserve and even replenish one’s beliefs.”
Ending a movie like this is hard. In reality, revolutionary work is likely to end with prison time, death, or international exile. But Woman at War closes deftly, in the same way it tackles tricky topics like morality, jobs, and family. Halla visits Ukraine to adopt a young girl, and on her return to the airport, is forced to carry her through a slowly-rising flood that has blocked the road. It is tranquil but daunting slow-moving emergency submerging the entire world. A fitting metaphor, then, for the theme of the entire film.
As I finish writing this review, spring is in full bloom. The birds are singing outside my small cabin in the Oregon woods. But I know that the slow-moving floods of climate change, species extinction, toxification, overpopulation, habitat destruction, and refugees are rising. Year by year, we are slipping into a nightmare. Woman at War is not exactly a template, but it is a great beginning point for a movement that could save us from the worst of what is coming, if only we are ready to listen.
Max Wilbert is a third-generation organizer who grew up in Seattle’s post-WTO anti-globalization and undoing racism movement. He is the author of two books.
JULY 24, 2017 — Two activists have come forward and admitted to multiple acts of eco-sabotage against the Dakota Access Pipeline in Spring 2017. Several of these incidents had been previously hidden from the public. Much of the sabotage took place with minimal equipment and training, and during broad daylight.
The women have come forward in the hope that others will support and be inspired by their actions.
They have currently been arrested on a lesser charge, and the FBI is investigating. Deep Green Resistance is reaching out via our Political Prisoner / Prisoner of War Support Group and aims to provide whatever assistance possible.
This is a developing story and more news will be coming soon. Press release follows:
The Dakota Access Pipeline is an issue that affects this entire nation and the people that are subject to its rule. With DAPL we have seen incredible issues regarding the rule of law, indigenous sovereignty, land seizures, state sanctioned brutality, as well as corporate protections and pardons for their wrongdoings. To all those that continue to be subjected to the government’s injustices, we humbly stand with you, and we ask now that you stand with us.
Federal courts gave corporations permission to lie and withhold information from the public resulting in a complete media blackout. So, after recently being called by the Intercept, an independent media outlet, regarding illegal surveillance by the Dakota Access Pipeline and their goons, we viewed this as an opportunity to encourage public discourse surrounding nonviolent direct action as well as exposing the inadequacies of the government and the corporations they protect.
After having explored and exhausted all avenues of process, including attending public commentary hearings, gathering signatures for valid requests for Environmental Impact Statements, participating in Civil Disobedience, hunger strikes, marches and rallies, boycotts and encampments, we saw the clear deficiencies of our government to hear the people’s demands.
Instead, the courts and public officials allowed these corporations to steal permissions from landowners and brutalize the land, water, and people. Our conclusion is that the system is broken and it is up to us as a individuals to take peaceful action and remedy it, and this we did, out of necessity.
We acted for our children and the world that they are inheriting is unfit. There are over five major bodies of water here in Iowa, and none of them are clean because of corporation’s flagrant irresponsibility, and now another wishes to poison literally millions of us irreparably by putting us all at risk of another major catastrophe with yet another oil spill. DAPL has already leaked, and it will continue do so until the oil is shut off and the pipes are removed from the ground.
On election night 2016, we began our peaceful direct action campaign to a Dakota Access construction site and burned at least 5 pieces of heavy machinery in Buena Vista County, IA. Details regarding this action are attached to this statement below. This was information which was not shared with the public. We recognize that our action wasn’t much, but we at least stopped construction for a day at that particular site.
We then began to research the tools necessary to pierce through 5/8 inch steel pipe, the material used for this pipeline. In March we began to apply this self-gathered information. We began in Mahaska County, IA, using oxy-acetylene cutting torches to pierce through exposed, empty steel valves, successfully delaying completion of the pipeline for weeks. After the success of this peaceful action, we began to use this tactic up and down the pipeline, throughout Iowa (and a part of South Dakota), moving from valve to valve until running out of supplies, and continuing to stop the completion of this project. More information on these actions is followed at the end of this statement.
These actions of great public interest were hardly reported and the federal government and Energy Transfer Partners colluded together to lie and withhold vital information to the public.
We then returned to arsonry as a tactic. Using tires and gasoline-soaked rags we burned multiple valve sites, their electrical units, as well as additional heavy equipment located on DAPL easements throughout Iowa, further halting construction.
Later, in the first week of May we attempted yet again to pierce a valve located in Wapallo County, IA with an oxy-acetylene cutting torch. It was at this time we discovered oil was flowing through the pipe. This was beyond disheartening to us, as well as to the nation at large. This event was again hidden from the public and replaced with lies about “ditch depressions”.
We stand here now today as witnesses of peaceful, nonviolent direct action. Our actions have been those of necessity and humility. We feel we have done nothing to be ashamed of. For some reason the courts and ruling government value corporate property and profit over our inherent human rights to clean water and land.
We are speaking publicly to empower others to act boldly, with purity of heart, to dismantle the infrastructures which deny us our rights to water, land and liberty. We as civilians have seen the repeated failures of the government and it is our duty to act with responsibility and integrity, risking our own liberty for the sovereignty of us all.
Some may view these actions as violent, but be not mistaken. We acted from our hearts and never threatened human life nor personal property. What we did do was fight a private corporation that has run rampantly across our country seizing land and polluting our nation’s water supply. You may not agree with our tactics, but you can clearly see the necessity of them in light of the broken federal government and the corporations they protect.
We do not anticipate a fair trial but do expect our loved ones to undergo harassment from the federal government and the corporations they protect. We urge you to not speak one word to the federal government and stand firm in order to not be oppressed further into making false, but self-incriminating statements. Film these interactions. There are resources as to what to do if the federal agents appear at your doorstep, educate and protect yourself.”
It is unfortunate to have to prepare for such things, but this is the government that rules, which continues to look more and more like a Nazi, fascist Germany as each day passes. We salute the people.
Details of our peaceful direct action are as follows. We hope this information helps inspire others to act boldly and peacefully, and to ease any anxieties to perceptions held that the state and these corporations are somehow an “omniscient” and “undefeatable” entity.
After studying intuitively how fires work, and the material of the infrastructures which we wished to halt (metal) we learned that the fire had to be hot enough to melt steel — and we have learned typical arsonry is not always the most effective means, but every action is a thorn in their side.
On election night, knowing that gasoline burns quickly, but does not sustain by itself, we added motor oil (which burns at a higher temperature and for longer) and rags to coffee canisters and placed them on the seats of the machinery, piercing the coffee canisters once they were in place and striking several matches, anticipating that the seats would burn and maintain a fire long enough to make the machines obsolete. One canister did not light, and that is unfortunate, but five out of six ain’t bad.
As we saw construction continue, we realized that pipe was going into the ground and that our only means to obstruct further corporate desecration was somehow to pierce through the empty steel pipes exposed at the numerous valve sites. We learned that a welding torch using oxygen and acetylene was the proper tool. We bought the equipment outside of our city in efforts to maintain anonymity as our goal was to push this corporation beyond their means to eventually abandon the project. We bought kits at Home Depot and the tanks at welding supply stores, like Praxair and Mathesons. Having no experience with welding equipment before, we learned through our own volition and we were able to get the job down to 7 minutes.
In our particular circumstances, we learned that scouting often hindered our ability to act in windows of opportunity. So, we went with our torches and protective gear on, and found numerous sites, feeling out the “vibe” of each situation, and deciding to act then and there, often in broad daylight. Trust your spirit, trust the signs.
Having run out of supplies (the tanks) we decided to return to arsonry because every action counts. We used gasoline and rags along with tires (as tires burn a nice while, once a steady fire within them burns) to multiple DAPL sites and equipment.
We were able to get more supplies shortly after and returned to a valve site in Wapello County to act again. It was then we discovered that oil was flowing through the pipeline. This was not reported to the public, instead a story of “ditch depressions” was reported to the public in Wapello County as the reason to why the pipeline continued to be delayed.
It is because of these lies we choose to come out publicly, to set the record straight, and be open about these peaceful and viable tactics against corporate atrocities.
If there are any regrets, it is that we did not act enough.
Please support and stand with us in this journey because we all need this pipeline stopped.
Water is Life, oil is death.
Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya
Editor’s Note: With the ineffectiveness of the current environmental movement becoming more and more apparent, people are turning to other means to save the natural world. DGR believes in the use of any technique to save the natural world. However, we also believe that caution should be expanded towards the so called “renewable” energy as well. Also care should be taken in what actions would happen in declaring a climate emergency.
By Chuck Collins/Common Dreams
The 1960s folk singer Malvina Reynolds wrote a song: “It Isn’t Nice,” singing, “It isn’t nice to block the doorway. It isn’t nice to go to jail. There are nicer ways to do it. But the nice ways always fail.”
Keep Malvina in mind as you read about the climate protests next week and in the days to come, including Climate Defiance blocking the doors to Citigroup because of their financing of new oil and gas projects. Prepare to witness a militant escalation of tactics aimed at the fossil fuel industry and their role in delaying society’s response to climate change.
After a summer of floods, fires, droughts, record heat, and weather disruption, we are clearly moving into the “new abnormal,” fueled by increased greenhouse gas emissions.
Yet even President Biden can’t seem to mouth the words “climate emergency.” As part of the June budget deficit deal, Biden approved an expedited Mountain Valley gas pipeline project along with an unprecedented legal shield against delaying lawsuits.
There are still avenues and pressure points for humanity to avert the worst outcome of climate disruption, which is an extinction event. But this will require bold action in what scientists call the critical decade ahead.
A new United Nations global climate report card finds countries need to catch up in meeting their Paris Agreement goals in reducing emissions. We would be making more progress if an unrepentant fossil fuel industry wasn’t using its considerable clout to block the transition to a clean energy future.
As global leaders gather in New York City for Climate Week and other United Nations meetings, hundreds of thousands will join the March to End Fossil Fuels. Some of them will be “blocking the doorways.”
Actions in Europe presage US coming attractions. Extinction Rebellion UK has blocked roads and building entrances, Just Stop Oil activists threw soup at paintings and disrupted cultural events, while other European activists blocked private jet runways.
Their focus on fossil fuel corporations makes sense. Investigative reporting has revealed that the largest fossil fuel companies, including Shell and ExxonMobil, have known about the dangerous repercussions of burning coal, gas and oil for decades. And this week The Wall Street Journal offered its own expose about Exxon’s internal strategy to downplay climate risk.
If governments and the public had known what these corporate leaders knew four decades ago, we could have moved more quickly to a safe energy transition. Instead, the industry has “run out the clock”—making low-hanging fruit adjustments impossible and putting our planet on a trajectory towards ecosystem collapse right up until the present moment.
The leaders of a couple dozen global energy corporations are making conscious decisions to build new infrastructure to extract and burn billions of tons of carbon and methane presently sequestered. A Guardian expose identified 195 carbon bomb projects that would each burn a billion tons of carbon over their lifetime. Private airports are making plans to expand capacity for private jet travel, one of the least defensible forms of luxury excess.
In this context, more people are abandoning our political system as the arena for making change, focusing on private sector responses such as carbon capture technologies, and using militant direct actions to block new oil, gas, and coal infrastructure.
Disruptive direct action, such as efforts by Extinction Rebellion and Climate Defiance, are critical to drawing attention to the fight, an urgency that will only grow as ecological stability unravels. On Earth Day last year, a Colorado activist, Wynn Bruce self-immolated himself on the steps of the Supreme Court as they handed down a decision undermining climate protections.
The collision course between ecological realities and our insufficient societal responses will only intensify. The coming decade will see more Wynn Bruce acts of desperation and eco-sabotage, like that depicted in the dramatic new film, How to Blow Up a Pipeline and the nonfiction book by Andreas Malm with the same name.
Works of future fiction may be preparing us for what may lay ahead. In Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson depicts a murky “black ops” group that leads to private jets falling from the sky and hostage-taking.
In my novel, Altar to an Erupting Sun, a group of terminally-ill grandmothers calling themselves the Good Ancestors self-immolate themselves in the lobby of ExxonMobil, a wake-up call that mobilizes humanity. Other fictional activists focus on preparing their New England communities to face a disrupted future by building local food resilience, mutual aid, and the capacity to welcome climate refugees. In The Deluge, author Stephen Markley describes the radicalization of right and left-wing activists to rising sea level rise and economic collapse.
There are still avenues and pressure points for humanity to avert the worst outcome of climate disruption, which is an extinction event. But this will require bold action in what scientists call the critical decade ahead. What we need is a bold “just transition” program that ends fossil fuels as soon as possible, including a declaration of a climate emergency, a moratorium on new fossil fuel infrastructure, and the elimination of government subsidies for oil, gas, and coal, and its timely phase-out.
Until this program can move forward, be prepared to find people blocking the doorways.
“Direct action is all we have left. Save the world. #Melbourneclimatestrike IMG_5249” by John Englart (Takver) is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
Editor’s Note: For the past few decades, the environmental movement has tried lobbying, educating, and holding rallies with the notion of protecting the natural world. This approach has not led to success. Instead of the destruction of the planet being slowed down, it has been progressing (in some cases, accelerating). This inefficacy has forced us to consider other means that might have better results. The deep green environmental movement has always called for use of any means necessary to protect the natural world. The following analysis highlights how more are opening up to the idea.
This story was originally published by Grist. Sign up for Grist’s weekly newsletter here
By Kate Yoder/Grist
It’s hard to think of something more wholesome than gardening. But the New Zealand gardening collective at the heart of Birnam Wood, a new political thriller by the Booker Prize-winning author Eleanor Catton, have a rebellious streak. The guerrilla gardeners trespass on unused land to grow carrots, cabbages, strawberries, and other crops. They tap private spigots and snipe the occasional tool from a shed in a wealthy neighborhood, imagining themselves as environmental revolutionaries.
Bookshelves are beginning to teem with radical environmentalists. In the sci-fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, a group called the Children of Kali target conspicuous “carbon burners,” knocking jets out of the sky and sinking yachts. A purported ecoterrorist also drives the plot of the mystery Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer, sending the main character on a risky mission into the world of wildlife trafficking. Then there’s Stephen Markley’s novel The Deluge, released in January, where a group of climate radicals called 6Degrees tries to avoid detection by the surveillance state as they instigate attacks on oil and gas infrastructure.
That eco-sabotage has captured so many authors’ imaginations seems to reflect a broader frustration with governments’ failure to rein in carbon emissions — a feeling that decades of peaceful protest weren’t enough, and the world is out of options. It has propelled climate fiction, once a niche genre, into the mainstream. Think of The Overstory by Richard Powers, a sweeping novel that follows activists who seek to save trees at all costs, employing human barricades, tree-sitting, and arson. It won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize and generated glowing praise from Bill Gates as well as Barack Obama, who said it “changed how I thought about the Earth and our place in it.”
History suggests that fictional stories about eco-sabotage, sometimes called “monkeywrenching” after Edward Abbey’s book of the same name, could inspire people to try something similar in the real world.`
“The world right now is ripe for radical activism,” said Dana Fisher, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. Last week, a report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that the risks from climate change — both present and future — were even more severe than previously thought. In the last year alone, heavy rainfall submerged a third of Pakistan with massive floods and China endured a heat wave more intense and longer-lasting than any in recent history. The panel of scientists called for a “substantial reduction” in the use of fossil fuels, with the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres declaring that the world needed a “quantum leap in climate action.”
Yet earlier this month, the Biden administration approved the Willow project, a ConocoPhillips oil drilling operation that could release up to 260 million metric tons of carbon over its lifetime. For progressive groups in the United States who spent recent years working with the Biden administration to pass the landmark Inflation Reduction Act, the single largest climate package in the country’s history, it felt like a betrayal — one that might lead to a shift in tactics.
“I mean, everybody knows that we are nowhere near where we need to be,” Fisher said. “And so the natural progression is you’re going to see folks, particularly young people, rise up.”
Apocalyptic storylines have long dominated environmental fiction — including Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road — a frame that’s tailor-made to ramp up concern about planetary crises. “I think that a lot of climate fiction has been perhaps stuck in this mold of cautionary tales, of bad climate futures,” said Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, an English professor at Colby College in Maine.
Now reality is doing the work that fiction once did. With a quorum of Americans sufficiently frightened about the world’s trajectory — a full quarter of the population is now “alarmed” about climate change — writers are branching out. Authors are modeling for readers a transition from “apathetic awareness” to “meaningful action” by showing different kinds of political engagement, Schneider-Mayerson said.
That might explain the variety of unconventional activism in recent novels, such as the guerrilla gardeners of Birnam Wood and the utopian commune in Allegra Hyde’s Eleutheria (2022). Hyde’s novel follows a woman who joins a camp of eco-warriors in the Bahamas, after she read a guide to fighting climate change called Living the Solution. “I felt like a lot of climate fiction that I was encountering was purely apocalyptic,” Hyde told Grist. “But I wrote this because I wanted to use fiction as a space to imagine other possibilities, imagine utopian possibilities, and maybe open up that imaginative space for people.”
Eleutheria was inspired in part by The Great Derangement, a nonfiction book by the Indian author Amitav Ghosh published in 2016 that bemoaned the lack of serious literature about climate change, especially outside of science fiction, at the time. “I think it is a real call to arms to fiction writers to recognize how storytelling can and does shape how we live our lives in the real world,” Hyde said.
Another inflection point for climate fiction was the widespread popularity of The Overstory, the 512-page novel that brought attention to the ways trees communicate and wound up as a global bestseller. “It wasn’t hived off into the usual silos of climate change or speculative fiction, but was treated as a mainstream novel,” Ghosh told the Guardian in 2020, noting that he’s seen an “outpouring of work in this area” since the book’s publication.
Monkeywrenching is also spilling over into film. The movie How to Blow Up a Pipeline, coming out next month, is inspired by the Swedish writer Andreas Malm’s book of the same name, a manifesto that encourages sabotage and critiques the pacifism of the climate movement. The film adaption takes that idea and turns it into a work of fiction, following a group of disillusioned young people on a heist to sabotage an oil pipeline. The trailer shows them making bombs and features dramatic background music punctuated by klaxons. “They will defame us and claim this was violence or vandalism,” one activist says. “But this was justified.”
Previous films have tended to “pathologize” activists who destroy property, psychoanalyzing them to figure out what was wrong with them, Schneider-Mayerson said. “I think maybe there’s a sense that, like, you can kind of touch these topics, but you can never endorse it.” On the other hand, How to Blow Up a Pipeline ends with “a wink and a nudge,” according to an early review of the film. “You can almost hear the movie say that the sabotage doesn’t need to stop when the credits roll,” Edward Ongweso Jr wrote in Vice.
The idea that people might take a cue from the movie isn’t far-fetched, experts say. “I can just say for sure that there are a whole bunch of dissatisfied young people around the country,” said Fisher, the sociologist. “And if they start watching movies about blowing up pipelines, what will that do?”
Photo by Krists Luhaers on Unsplash