Wellington motorists have been outraged by protesters who glue their hands to the road. They may not be much mollified to know they’re caught up in a worldwide debate. In the United States, Europe, Australia and especially in Britain, climate-action protesters are struggling with the question: with time fast running out, how do you stop carbon emissions?
Protest has to be part of it, right? And it has to be non-violent. Right? But how and why and what?
Non-violent direct action has always been part of the climate movement. Nearly 20 years ago, a British group called Planet Stupid used to run on to airport runways. Good name: it makes you laugh even if you’re furious your plane is delayed.
And for far longer than that, Greenpeace has been trying to shut down the enemies of the environment: whaling ships, oil-drilling vessels, shareholder meetings of companies that fund the destruction. Their protests are targeted, high-profile and, especially at sea, have often involved considerable bravery and personal risk.
Photographer Fernando Pereira died for his beliefs when, in an act of state terrorism, the French Government bombed the Greenpeace ship the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland in 1984. These days, in Brazil, parts of Asia and elsewhere, climate activists are often killed.
A new group emerged in Britain in 1918. Extinction Rebellion, known as XR, was committed to extremely disruptive public action. Taking inspiration from the suffragists and other radical activists of the past, they glued their hands to motorways and splashed a lot of red paint around.
They went to the headquarters of Barclays Bank, which finances several billion pounds of fossil-fuel extraction each year, and smashed the windows. “In case of climate emergency, break glass,” read the stickers they stuck to the shattered panes.
XR also engaged in mass action: in two periods of sustained mass action on the streets of London in 2019 - 1130 and then 1832 people were arrested.
In one way the XR theory was simple: the sooner everyone understands the climate crisis will affect them personally, the sooner we will agree to stop the emissions. So protest has to affect everyone. This is the idea that underpins the Restore Passenger Rail protests in Wellington.
In court, XR members have argued they have a moral imperative to act, and that argument has been surprisingly successful with juries and even judges. Public opinion in Britain is solidly in favour of reducing emissions and taking the climate crisis more seriously.
But while there’s support for the cause, there’s no evidence the disruptive protests have strengthened that support. As in Wellington, XR has been confronted by furious motorists. In one notorious case when protesters climbed on to the roof of a train, they fought with commuters who attempted to haul them down. That was a bad look.
Still, XR has tried to avoid violence against the public. This hasn’t stopped the real opponents of climate action from demonising them.
A right-wing think tank called Policy Exchange, funded by ExxonMobil to fight climate activism, has called XR an extremist organisation that should be criminalised. And the British Government has passed punitive laws against disruptive protests, prompted by a report by Policy Exchange, with which it has close ties.
On New Year’s Eve last year, XR released a statement called “We Quit”. They said they had decided to “temporarily shift away from public disruption as a primary tactic” and, instead, focus on peaceful mass protest that “prioritise attendance over arrest and relationships over roadblocks”.
XR wants to build public support. Other radical groups, like Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain, responded by recommitting to public disruption.
Insulate Britain? The name refers to a campaign to upgrade home insulation. The group is like Restore Passenger Rail: climate activists with specific, local, achievable demands.
Just Stop Oil is a bit different: they’re famous for throwing cans of tomato soup at paintings in galleries. And they stick their hands to the walls.
This is disruptive and very high-profile, but they aren’t vandals: they choose paintings behind glass. It’s also symbolic: the message is that life is not an aesthetic experience and we have to stop pretending everything is fine just because we still have nice things.
Just Stop Oil was prominent among the protesters at the coronation last weekend.
As for XR, it’s also active here. And in case you’re thinking in stereotypes, it’s not a movement of student radicals: most of its prominent members are elderly.
WHO’S RIGHT? When time’s running out fast, how do you change the world?
In sociology, it’s called “the activist’s dilemma”. You know decisive action is required but you also want to build widespread public support. How do you do both?
One answer is: across the movement, you do everything.
Indigo Rumbelow, who co-founded Just Stop Oil, puts it this way: “The debate is not between those who want to take ‘moderate’ or ‘radical’ action. It’s between those who are standing by doing nothing at all, and those who are doing something. That’s where the line is drawn.”
It’s an ecosystem, with each part playing a role. There’s even evidence that while radical action attracts some people, it also helps more moderate groups gain support. You might not support the people gluing their hands to the road, but you want to do something meaningful, so you join Forest and Bird.
Not everyone buys it. Andreas Malm is a Swedish academic and activist who argues that fossil-fuel corporates are not going to give up their profits voluntarily, so they have to be stopped. His most famous book is called How to Blow Up a Pipeline.
Malm dismisses the soup-throwing and the hand-gluing, the marching in the streets and even the “blah blah blah” of Greta Thunberg. He’s been there and done that – he was a protester at the very first COP, in Berlin in 1995 – and he’s decided none of it works. Malm believes in sabotage.
That is, destroying equipment at coal mines, as has happened to a small degree in Germany, and physically preventing the construction of oil pipelines, as Sioux tribes have tried to do at Standing Rock in North Dakota.
Malm has traced the history of emancipation, through slavery, votes for women, American civil rights and many other movements, and decided that all such struggles, when successful, contain a common element: violence.
He doesn’t mean killing people. But he does mean the destruction of property. “When do we start physically attacking the things that consume our planet and destroy them with our own hands? Is there a good reason we have waited this long?”
He asks whether it is “possible to locate even one minimally relevant analogue to the climate struggle that has not contained some violence”.
Very few people in the climate movement or anywhere else want to accept that. So the question becomes: If violence is not the answer, hadn’t we better come up with something that is?
How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a movie now. It’s a drama, not a documentary, about a disparate bunch of activists in Texas who act out the sabotage promoted in the book, and it’s been getting some strong reviews. Not available here yet.
Malm has unsettled quite a few people in the climate movement. The Guardian writer George Monbiot, usually regarded as a radical himself, worries about a government and corporate backlash: “A campaign of violence,” he warns, could “create a monster much bigger than you are: a monster that will close down the last chance of saving Earth systems.
“My own belief,” he says, “is that our best hope is to precipitate a social tipping: widening the concentric circles of those committed to systemic change until a critical threshold is reached, that flips the status quo.”
Monbiot thinks that tipping point is only about 25 per cent of the population. It’s an achievable goal, he suggests, but it will be less achievable if violent conflict is involved.
CLIMATE ACTION is about far more than protest. As Monbiot implies, it’s about how we live, in our homes and our communities, and how we engage with the world.
We all confront this now. Almost every part of New Zealand has been hit heavily by cyclones, floods, droughts and/or wildfires, often more than once.
We’re looking for new answers about where it’s safe to live and how to make sure those places stay safe. How to look after each other in local communities. How to evolve an economy vulnerable to the ravages of wild weather. How to bring our emissions tumbling down.
Everywhere you look, people are coming up with exciting answers.
Jade Kake (Ngāpuhi, Te Whakatōhea, Te Arawa) is an architectural designer who works on papakāinga or village projects in Whangārei. As she explains in her book Rebuilding the Kāinga, she helps mana whenua re-establish themselves in communal living on ancestral land.
For Kake, papakāinga represents “the development of new integrated housing, social and economic models for living today, based on how Māori used to live in the past”. Homes with communal facilities, where different generations look after each other, and where people work together and share in the economic prosperity that allows.
It’s not for everyone, she says. But perhaps it is for more people than you might think.
She also says, “While our social aims should be radical, our tactics are necessarily pragmatic, because we need to be effective.”
What about the personal response? Shaun Hendy, well-known for his Covid modelling work during the pandemic, is the chief scientist at Toha. It’s a company that operates “a marketplace for environmental action”, but in 2018 Hendy took on his own challenge: he stopped flying.
Not an easy thing, for a scientist in demand both at home and abroad. But you don’t discover much or change much when the challenge is easy. Hendy wanted to see if he could seriously disrupt his life and still come out on top. His book about it is called #NoFly.
Max Harris, an equity campaigner and lawyer, is dedicated to the intellectual grunt work of progressive change. Harris wrote The New Zealand Project, which contains a sea of stimulating proposals on everything from justice to gender relations, taxation to trade.
Harris wants to see far-reaching economic reform, greater engagement of local communities, a rethink of local and central government roles – and protest that generates a desire for change. This is Kake’s work, writ large.
I’m chairing a panel discussion with Hendy, Harris and Kake during the Auckland Writers Festival. We’ll also have Carisa Showden with us. She’s a co-author of the inspirational Fierce Hope: Youth Activism in Aotearoa, a book that loops us straight back to the question of how to protest and why.
Because, how are we going to get those emissions down?
“But What Can We Do?” Auckland Writers Festival, 5.30pm Thursday, May 18, Kiri Te Kanawa Theatre, Aotea Centre. writersfestival.co.nz