The Climate Movement Must Disrupt the Normal Routines of Fossil Capital

Despite all the mounting evidence of climate catastrophe, fossil fuel companies are still planning to carry on business as usual. The climate movement must be ready to use tactics that disrupt the normal routines of fossil capital and prompt states to take meaningful action.

A photo from the Ende Gelände climate camp in Germany in 2016. Photo: Ende Gelände

All three cycles of climate protest in the twenty-first century have spun out of an insight, more and more widely shared: the ruling classes really will not be talked into action. They are not amenable to persuasion; the louder the sirens wail, the more material they rush to the fire, and so a change in direction will have to be forced upon them. The movement must learn to disrupt business as usual.

To this end, it has developed an impressive repertoire: blockades, occupations, sit-ins, divestment, school strikes, the shutdown of city centers, the signal tactic of the climate camp. Later cycles have built on and learned from prior ones. Toward the end of the second, much inspired by the North American struggles against pipelines, the German movement reinvented the climate camp formula and brought it to a higher level of mass defiance: Ende Gelände, meaning roughly “here and no further,” was born.

Upward Curve

At Ende Gelände, activists pitch their tents around a central area of circus tents and kitchens. They undergo training in affinity groups, dress up in thin white coveralls, and set out for a brown coal mine. Approaching the target from several directions, in brigade-like columns or “fingers,” they excel in breaking through police cordons with the sheer mass of their bodies, running past outwitted guards, making their way through water cannons and fences until they reach the open pits.

There they slide down into the dusty craters and climb the diggers — the humongous excavators, like towering, rusty ships slowly eating their way through the earth — or lie down on the railway tracks ferrying coal to the furnaces. Production can be switched off for days. No fuel can be dug up and burned when the activists hold the premises.

Arguably constituting the most advanced stage of the climate struggle in Europe, Ende Gelände spanned the cycles and grew year on year; in the summer of 2019, six thousand people closed the largest point source of emissions in Germany, backed up by several thousands more in the camp and some forty thousand in a Fridays for Future demonstration. By that time, Ende Gelände had forced the issue of brown coal to the top of the agenda and prompted a national commission to set a date for phasing it out — the date eventually announced as 2038.

That’s another two decades of churning out coal. Hence Ende Gelände promised to march on and swell further and spawn more copycats around Europe; in 2019, dozens of climate camps were organized from Poland to Portugal. The learning curve went steadily upward.

Thus the cycles have not returned to square one, but rather formed a cumulative process and rising loop, like the climate crisis itself. The American and European sections have learned from each other, and the cadres have accumulated a wealth of experiences. These include “small wins” — a gas pipeline canceled here, a coal plant scrapped there — as well as some big losses, which, however, seem to ensure the movement its growth, as the fire drives more people to take the plunge into activism.

Strategic Pacifism

But so far, the movement has stopped short of one mode of action: offensive (or, for that matter, defensive) physical force. Anything that could be classified as violence has been studiously, scrupulously avoided. Indeed, the commitment to absolute nonviolence appears to have stiffened over the cycles, the internalization of its ethos universal, the discipline remarkable.

One example: in late August 2018, some seven hundred activists assembled outside a compound of seven gray gas cisterns in the Dutch province of Groningen. Home to the largest onshore field of fossil gas in Europe, the area has long been racked by serial earthquakes, as the extraction has made the land suddenly compact and subside, damaging homes and buildings and racking the nerves of the local population. We erected an improvised camp in front of the compound, blocking transportation. The police lined up on a railway track between the gates and us. A ballast of crushed stones held up the rails.

As dusk fell, some three hundred farmers marched against Shell and Exxon and ended up in the camp, causing the crowd to spill onto the railway track, at which point the police started raining down their batons and shooting pepper spray, someone fainting and being carried away, others screaming in pain. Not a single stone was picked up and thrown. The supply was abundant — we were standing on top of thousands; we could have pelted them — and after such an assault, other types of crowds would have responded in kind. The climate movement would not.

The strictures against violence extend to property destruction. In Groningen, the “action consensus” every participant had to abide by solemnly pledged that “we will not damage machines or infrastructure.” A year later, the first Swedish imitation of Ende Gelände took place in Gothenburg against the construction of a gas terminal, one node in a fresh new infrastructure for fossil-fuel combustion rolled out over the continent. A company called Swedegas engineered the terminal and aimed for eight more on the Swedish coast. Liquefied gas would be imported from across the world and pumped into the country through a network of pipelines, to the benefit of a global consortium of investors.

And so we went there with our white coveralls, to the Gothenburg harbor, three fingers, five hundred people — the largest civil disobedience action in the modern history of this somnolent nation — and blocked all trucks carrying oil and gas for a day. The action consensus stated that “we will behave calmly and carefully”; further, “it is not our aim to destroy or damage any infrastructure.” We spent the day sitting on the asphalt. Thus far, the movement for averting a spiraling climate catastrophe has not only been civil: it has been gentle and mild in the extreme.

Two Scenarios

There can be no doubt that this posture has served it well. It confers upon the movement a bundle of well-known tactical advantages. If it had deployed black bloc–like tactics from the start — donning sinister masks, smashing windows, burning barricades, fighting it out with the cops — it would never have attracted these numbers. The bar for joining a disruption of business as usual is lowered by certificates of peacefulness. Our being beaten up on the railway tracks in Groningen earned us the sympathy of the Dutch press; no one could smear us as terrorists or the like.

Had some of us in Gothenburg started hacking on the fences or used slingshots against the trucks, the scene would have descended into chaos. We would have been kettled and herded off to jail; I could not have brought my two kids to the site and played with them for hours.

Collective self-discipline — submitting to the guidelines of the operational leadership; conducting an action in accordance with plans — is a virtue. The determination of the movement to scale up its challenge to business as usual by means of ever bigger, bolder mass actions of precisely this kind cannot be called into question: this is the main way forward. Let a hundred Ende Gelände camps bloom, and fossil capital might find itself under some real pressure.

What can be questioned, however, is something else. Will absolute nonviolence 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?

The question can be formulated in a different way. Imagine that the mass mobilizations of the third cycle become impossible to ignore. The ruling classes feel themselves under such heat — perhaps their hearts even melting somewhat at the sight of all these kids with handwritten placards — that their obduracy wanes.

New politicians are voted into office, notably from Green parties in Europe, who live up to their election promises. The pressure is kept up from below. Moratoriums on fresh fossil fuel infrastructure are instituted. Legislation and planning are put in place for cutting emissions by at least 10 percent per year; renewable energy and public transport are scaled up, plant-based diets promoted, blanket bans on fossil fuels prepared. The movement should be given the chance to see this scenario through.

But imagine a different scenario: a few years down the road, the kids of the Thunberg generation and the rest of us wake up one morning and realize that business as usual is still on, regardless of all the strikes, the science, the pleas, the millions with colorful outfits and banners — not beyond the realm of the thinkable. Imagine the greasy wheels roll as fast as ever. What do we do then?

Widening Gap

Meanwhile, in the actually existing capitalist world economy, unfolding in parallel to the billowing climate movement, money has been flowing into the construction of fresh fireplaces. In May 2019, just weeks after the XR “spring uprising” in London, the International Energy Agency (IEA) released its annual report on investment trends in the world of energy. Capitalists knew what sources to bank on.

Two-thirds of capital placed in projects for generating energy in the year 2018 went to oil, gas, and coal — that is, to additional facilities for extracting and combusting such fuels, on top of all that already spanned the globe — as against less than one-third of capital going to wind and sun. The share of renewables evinced no growth trend. In fact, global investment here edged downward by 1 percent (not a function of falling prices).

Investment in coal, on the other hand, turned upward for the first time since 2012, by 2 percent — that is, investment in brand-new coal supply not only continued but increased, although not as fast as in oil and gas. For the third consecutive year, the amount of money flowing into “upstream” oil and gas, meaning infrastructure for delivering those fuels from under the ground, grew by 6 percent — year on year, 6 percent more capital was sunk into fresh drills, wells, rigs; investment in exploration alone was projected to shoot up by 18 percent in 2019. The fire reignited itself anew.

Nowhere on the horizon of ongoing capital accumulation could a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy be sighted (despite the latter now being “consistently cheaper,” as noted by the billionaire’s rag Forbes). The IEA had tact enough to notice “a growing mismatch between current trends and the paths to meeting” the goals of maximum 1.5°C or 2°C global warming. Put differently, the capitalist world economy operated in fundamental disconnect from the sense and science of a planet on fire, not to speak of all aspirations to cool it down. And the disconnect was widening.

Once an investor has constructed a coal-fired power plant or a pipeline or any other such unit, he will not want to dismantle it. Demolition on the morrow of completion would mean pecuniary disaster. It takes a lot of capital to get something like a deep-water field to pump up the black gold, and some time must pass before the initial investment pays off, and once profits have come gushing in, the owner will have an abiding interest in keeping the unit at work for as long as possible.

How can capitalists go on like this? They still feel that they own the world. Fixed capital of this size is normally subject to risks and sensitive to the anticipated “policy context.” Given the money involved, it would be imprudent to undertake these investments if swings and alterations in the economy threatened premature devaluation, let alone liquidation, but these capitalists do not see any wrecking balls coming their way. They think they have nothing to fear.

Beyond Expectations

At the time of COP 1, the first UN climate-change conference in 1995, few would have thought that two or three decades down the line, the economies of the world would discharge nearly one gigaton of carbon per month, with the corporations busily planning for augmented capacity to combust fossil fuels, and the governments presiding over it all, proudly or passively.

The northern zone of permafrost is a subterranean storehouse of carbon frozen for hundreds of thousands of years. When the planet heats up, the soil begins to thaw, microbes set to work on the organic matter and decompose it, releasing carbon dioxide but mainly methane — a greenhouse gas with eighty-seven times greater warming effect during the first two decades in the atmosphere.

Forest fires work the same way. Carbon locked into trees and soil escape when the flames pass through, as they now do more often, for longer periods, at higher intensity, over vaster territories, the primary fires of fossil fuels igniting secondary fires from Kamchatka to the Congo. Scientists lag behind these positive feedback mechanisms and struggle to capture them in their models. The carbon budgets have yet to fully integrate them, and if they would, they would contract further.

Thus, we find ourselves between two scissor blades: on the one hand, unbending business as usual, taking emissions ever higher and confounding hopes for mitigation; on the other, delicate ecosystems crashing down — the extraordinary inertia of the capitalist mode of production meeting the reactivity of the earth. This is the temporal predicament in which the climate movement has to devise meaningful strategies.

The science is eminently clear. Because so much valuable, irretrievable time has been lost, assets have to be stranded. Investments must be written off too early for capitalist taste; on one estimate, the instant suspension of every project in the pipeline would make 2°C achievable only if accompanied by the decommissioning of one-fifth of all power plants running on fossil fuels. That is a lot of already sunk capital.

Now one reason why climate stabilization appears such a frightfully daunting challenge is that no state seems prepared to even float this idea, because capitalist property has the status of the ultimate sacred realm. Who dares to throw it on the scrap heap? What government is willing to send in its forces to ensure the forfeiture of this amount of profit?

Breaking the Spell

And so there must be someone who breaks the spell. A refinery deprived of electricity, a digger in pieces: the stranding of assets is possible, after all. Property does not stand above the earth; there is no technical or natural or divine law that makes it inviolable in this emergency. If states cannot on their own initiative open up the fences, others will have to do it for them. Or property will cost us the earth.

But just as the suffragettes sought to twist the arm of the state — on their own, they could not legislate any voting rights — the aim would be to force states to proclaim the prohibition and begin retiring the stock. At the end of the day, it will be states that ram through the transition or no one will.

However, the states have fully proven that they will not be the prime movers. The question is not if sabotage from a militant wing of the climate movement will solve the crisis on its own — clearly a pipe dream — but if the disruptive commotion necessary for shaking business as usual out of the ruts can come about without it.

We must accept that property destruction is violence, insofar as it intentionally exerts physical force to inflict injury on a thing owned by someone who does not want it to happen. But in the very same breath, we must insist on it being different in kind from the violence that hits a human (or an animal) in the face: one cannot treat a car cruelly or make it cry.

Martin Luther King endorsed this distinction in his apologia for the urban riots of 1967: “Violent they certainly were. But the violence, to a startling degree, was focused against property rather than against people,” and within the genus of violent acts, this made all the difference: “A life is sacred. Property is intended to serve life, and no matter how much we surround it with rights and respect, it has no personal being.”

Why were the rioters “so violent with property then? Because property represents the white power structure, which they were attacking and trying to destroy.”

Here is a contrast from late 2019: Chilean students reacting to the rise in public-transport fares — championing that mode of transportation, as free and accessible for all — by organizing mass trespassing through the turnstiles, attacking ticket machines, supermarkets and company headquarters, and touching off a nationwide uprising against soaring inequalities in the homeland of neoliberalism. Meanwhile, the movement against climate catastrophe: placid and composed.

Climate Camps

But if the temptation to fetishize one kind of tactic should be resisted, this also applies, of course, to property destruction and other forms of violence. The tactic with the greatest potential for this movement might be something different. It might be the climate camp.

Climate camps have a way of building on each other, spreading horizontally, stacking up experiences of how to fight fossil capital on the ground. Unlike the Occupy and similar camps that cropped up in 2011 — to which they are, of course, related — climate camps are planned long in advance, with fixed dates for erection and dismantling; neither spontaneous nor reactive, they feed into a plotted escalation.

We have yet to see diminishing returns from activist investment; Ende Gelände has continued to draw in larger numbers and outmaneuver the police. But such success can be hard to replicate elsewhere. Fewer than the five to ten thousand now readily drummed up in the Rhineland, activists in other parts of Europe have found that a pre-announced camp can give the corporations time to prepare and move out sufficient fuel and equipment to cushion against a blockade.

With the trouble limited, the police may blunt the edge of the action by standing to the side and letting it pass. There is chatter in the movement about combining camps with smaller, secret, surprise hits to cause real disruption. Whatever comes out of it, the climate camp is the unrivaled laboratory for learning this fight.