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Tactics and Traditions in the British and German Climate Movements

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First things first: How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire will not tell you how to actually blow up a pipeline. There are no clear instructions for how to create and detonate a device capable of exploding the average pipeline. There are no guidelines for assembling a capable team or guidance on how to remain out of the detection of state surveillance before said explosion happens. There is no method given for how to pick a good spot to cause maximum damage to fossil capitalist infrastructure, and minimum damage to human and non-human life. There is no advice on how to deal with the response from the industry targeted by the attack, from the media, political representatives, the public, the law. It is not an instruction manual in that sense. As helpful as this kind of manual would be in the struggle for the continued existence of humanity, this book is no such thing.

Instead of such a manual, Malm has written an urgent polemic arguing for the absolute necessity of targeted industrial sabotage of the infrastructure of fossil capital. Necessary, that is, if we are to achieve anything close to mitigation of the worst effects of the unfolding climate crisis.

At the heart of Malm’s argument lies the conundrum he calls ‘Lanchester’s Paradox’: that, given the scale of the climate crisis, the severity, the urgency, why has there been so very little in the way of sabotage to the infrastructure that fuels it? Why does the climate movement at large hold on to such a constraining notion of non-violence, such that damage to the very property that is responsible for the problem is considered out of bounds?

One of my responses to this question is that even though the dominant, British-born Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement organisation has managed to enshrine a rigid definition of non-violence, this has not always been the case within the climate movement, nor within the broader, and older, ecological movement of which it is but the most recent part. Malm’s argument may be new with respect to the climate struggle but it is also an ideological debate that has animated social movements throughout history.

By looking into the historical lineages of groups such as the German climate camp movement, Ende Gelände, and the British equivalent, Reclaim the Power, we can begin to understand the historical reasons behind the climate movement’s adoption of this particular form. Just like XR, these organisations did not spring from nowhere, but were shaped by the coalescence of various founding individuals from other movement organisations, traditions and ideologies.

Often, these traditions and lineages stretch back for generations, mutating frequently yet keeping a core identity in terms of their strategies. Reclaim the Power, for instance, traces its lineage back to the anti-austerity organisation ‘UK Uncut,’ which in turn emerged from a group of activists involved in the ‘Climate Camp’ movement of 2006-2010, which in turn was formed by activists seasoned in the free party and anti-car movement ‘Reclaim the Streets,’ which in turn was heavily linked with the anti-roads protests of the ‘90s and Earth First!, which in turn was influenced by the anti-nuclear movement and a critique of the institutionalisation and mainstreaming of environmental organisations like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace in the ‘80s. The movements we see before us reflect historical processes of which their members may not even be aware.

Ende Gelände grew from the German ‘Klimakamp’ organisation that began in 2009, and which took the British Climate Camps as its inspiration. Activists, seasoned and informed by the international alter-globilisation movement and the decades-long successful anti-nuclear movement in Germany, created camps with the aim of getting participants to physically shut down the vastly polluting brown coal mines in the country. Events reached a new stage in 2015 when, to deal with the sheer scale of the coal infrastructure it was up against, Ende Gelände was formed as a coalition of Klimakamp and a number of other ecological and leftist groups to mobilise far more people to occupy the huge pits than in the six years previous.

In both the ecological movement histories of the UK and Germany the ideological traditions of sabotage and of strict ‘non-violence’ competed with one another. In Germany this conflict reached a head in 1997 at one of the Castor protests against the transportation of nuclear waste. It is reported that some ‘non-violent’ activists alerted police to other activists who were sabotaging the railway tracks, leading to their violent arrest and detention. Following this incident, which caused tension between activists, two years of consensus-building work was done to bring the competing tendencies together for a mass act of civil disobedience at the G8 summit in 2007. An ‘Action Consensus’ was formed to allow the differing sides to work together in a form of ‘constructive cooperation.’ It was not rigidly non-violent, groups with different perspectives on property damage agreed to give each other the space to enact their chosen tactics without hindrance from each other while committing not to injure anyone and to avoid becoming embroiled in the police’s escalation strategies.

This style of coalition agreement, the ‘Action Consensus,’ became a movement staple for bringing together different ideologies within the European climate movement. Over the years, it has enabled thousands to join together to push through police lines, occupy the diggers, railway lines, bridges and mines associated with coal infrastructure. But would this kind of ‘non-violence,’ promoted by Ende Gelände fall under the strict definition of ‘non-violence’ by the XR definition? Is pushing though a police line violent? Is wriggling out of the grip of a police officer violent? Is breaking through a fence violent?

Like XR, Ende Gelände employ a ‘strategic pacifism’ similar to that outlined by Malm as a tool to bring thousands of people together to directly target the fossil fuel industry. But unlike XR they do not denounce those engaged in sabotage. Should you want to engage in anything more forceful, well there’s a collective at some of the camps that may provide your affinity group with some helpful information… Ende Gelände walk a fine line between the bounds of mainstream acceptability which consistently gains positive news coverage, and the more contentious actions of some participants.

The UK, however, is a different story. Along with the explosion of XR onto the scene in recent years their much more rigid approach to non-violence has dominated. This tendency, apparent to a degree in Climate Camp and its successor Reclaim the Power, has won out and become exaggerated in the formation of XR, while also evidently increasing the appeal of a very specific form of ‘direct action’ against climate change to some sections of society. The extent to which stopping traffic to lobby the state is actually direct, is somewhat debatable though. As the XR brand has colonised the attention paid to much of the world’s climate activism of late, their particular notion of non-violence has also begun to dominate.

However it’s not as if the more confrontational tendency never existed in the UK. As Malm points out in the final chapter, it’s just that the drive for sabotage was often accompanied by a fatalistic and all-encompassing ecological-primitivist ideological framework where the enemy was not fossil fuelled capitalism per se but all of industrialised civilization. As such, pretty much anything could be considered a target, not just SUVs or pipelines but bridges and electric power lines too. Malm posits that “the climate movement took off because it had no connections to the ecosystem of Earth First!, Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front.”

From my experience studying the history of the movement in the UK, and from the many conversations I’ve had with seasoned older comrades in the movement, however, this claim simply doesn’t ring true. The climate movement in the UK took off despite the primitivist tone of many of the proponents of sabotage and was to a large extent formed from people who had cut their teeth with Earth First! and the anti-roads movement. The first Climate Camp in 2006 at Drax power station aimed for mass mobilisation (around 600 people) and promoted small so-called ‘spikey’ high-stakes, more aggressive affinity group actions as well as large demonstrations. This tradition for complimentary tactics did not end at the last British Climate Camp in 2010 but carried on into Reclaim the Power, the successor to the Climate Camps.

Malm defines three distinct waves of climate activism; firstly that of the UK and mainland Europe of 2006 onwards culminating in the mass mobilisation at the 2009 COP15 summit in Copenhagen; secondly the US based wave from 2011 onwards and thirdly the current wave most closely associated with XR in recent years. Contrary to the suggestion made by the definition of these waves, climate activism in the UK didn’t stop after 2010, only to be picked up again by XR in 2018.

From 2013 onwards Reclaim the Power has been at the heart of the struggle against fracking in the country. Reclaim the Power has acted as a national movement organisation bringing together climate activists from across the UK to work with the determined locals fiercely opposed to the industry. We have helped to teach people how to create reinforced ‘arm tubes’ for ‘lock-ons’ outside fracking sites and how to sneak into sites and occupy infrastructure among other things... However, the focus on small scale, more aggressive tactics was sometimes at a cost to the effort to build a mass movement. I remember talking to an activist at one of the permanent protest camps against fracking at Preston New Road in Lancashire, (a key battleground between the fracking industry and the national movement against it) saying with a smile on his face, “why try to mobilise thousands for a demo when you can shut down a fracking site with six people?!” But even though we didn’t have the same scale of numbers mobilised as XR, seven years later we won that struggle against fracking and we shouldn’t forget that. Direct action gets the goods.

In How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Malm works systematically through all the past struggles cited by XR in defence of their rigid pacifism, and reveals the violent elements at work in tandem with their ‘non-violent’ counterparts; the fight against transatlantic slavery leading to the US civil war, the indiscriminate window smashing campaigns of the suffragettes, the righteous violence of the anti-apartheid movement. Even the icons of non-violence, Ghandi and Martin Luther King, are shown to be unfamiliar to their fictionalised selves. Ghandi is quoted as being in favour of Jews ‘suffering voluntarily’ to ‘bring them an inner strength and joy,’ in Nazi Germany. And Martin Luther King is shown to have a ‘couple of loaded guns […] just for self-defence.’ When discussing the notion of radical self-defence, I often think of the retort made by the Black Liberationists. If you were being mugged for your wallet, the received wisdom may be to let the thief take it; if your baby were being ripped from your arms, though, you may not be able to control your instinct for violence in defending what you love. For the climate and the future of humanity it is the same; an emotional and strategic necessity to defend all the things we love.

As Malm argues, we do need the thousands on the streets making noise and being radicalised by the struggle. We do also need the six committed activists facing a custodial sentence for shutting down a fossil fuel site. We need people to immobilise the trains transporting copious container loads of wood pellets from the Liverpool docks to Drax power station, pellets that have been shipped from the US, chopped from indigenous forests, where the chipping process pollutes the air with wood dust for communities of colour. We need it all, not just some of it, not just those people who willingly walk into the arms of the police after obstructing traffic in capital cities, but people physically blocking fossil fuel infrastructure, people slashing the tyres, people getting arrested for something truly worthwhile or avoiding arrest if you at all can! I have locked myself to coal conveyor belts, I have laid my body down in front of building sites, I have blockaded fracking sites, I have physically occupied coal mines nine times, I have helped others to do the same.

With my determination comes my sense of agency and empowerment. And I know that for many of the people new to climate activism their hope has begun to return too. We are not passive recipients of hopeful emotions; hope is cultivated through action and defiance in the face of the abyss. With my actions I can look directly into the abyss and know I’ve tried my hardest in solidarity with the people of the global south and future generations. Fossil capital does not respond to appeals of reason or moral clarity, so let’s make our actions count.

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Alice Swift has been a radical climate activist for eleven years, though she has been campaigning since her teens. She was active in the 2010s student movement, helped launch the British divestment movement Fossil Free UK and co-founded the Birmingham Student Housing Co-operative. She is currently studying for a PhD on the European climate camp movement at Manchester University, mainly focusing on the German organisation Ende Gelände and the British equivalent Reclaim the Power which helped win the fight against fracking. She is an activist in both those organisations and is part of the anti-capitalist organisation Plan C. Follow her work on Twitter: @swiftnotswallow.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire by Andreas Malm is one of our January and February Book Club reads: a carefully curated selection of books that we think are essential and necessary reading. All our Book Club memberships are 50% off for the first 3 months. Find out more here.