If peaceful mass-mobilizations cannot avert climate catastrophe, has the time come to imagine more radical forms of resistance to fossil capitalism?
Originally published by Roar Mag. Written by Elias König.
What an uncanny time to be alive! In broad daylight, we are witnessing the organized slaughter of an entire ecosphere. Not a day passes without news of yet another wildfire or typhoon rampaging, another irreversible tipping point being reached, another world ending somewhere.
In the past three decades, facing a perfect storm of ecological and financial disaster, 400.000 farmers in India have already chosen to leave their families behind and to take their own lives, often by swallowing their own pesticides. Tens of thousands have lost their lives in the dry dunes of the Sahara Desert in the past decade alone, attempting to flee climate breakdown and imperial violence. In Madagascar, mothers are forced to forage for insects and leaves to feed their children after a decade of drought.
The perpetrators behind this global climate disaster are well-known, their crimes are meticulously documented, their ongoing commitment to denial, misinformation and greenwashing an open secret. Still benefiting from the structural design of fossil capitalism, the present fossil-fueled and accumulation-driven global economic system, and sheltered in a parallel suburban universe of private schools and board meetings, their lives have so far been buffered from the worst effects of the disaster they have unleashed.
Faced with this absurd reality, one cannot help but marvel at the ghastly silence that the crimes of fossil capital have so far been met with. The many voices of those who have stood up to the destructive status quo have sooner or later quietly faded away in the vastness of the global attention economy or been co-opted by those in power to serve their own agenda.
How is it possible that seven billion fellow human beings have so far been utterly incapable in organizing any effective large-scale resistance to the erasure of our collective futures? And how much longer will we be able to continue to live with this tension?
BREAKING THE SILENCE
On a literary level at least, the present situation has prompted a new cohort of authors to address the need to “break the silence” and to confront fossil fuel corporations with more targeted radical forms of action. Take this infamous 2007 essay by novelist John Lanchester published in the London Review of Books, which begins with a rather straightforward question:
It is strange and striking that climate change activists have not committed any acts of terrorism. After all, terrorism is for the individual by far the modern world’s most effective form of political action, and climate change is an issue about which people feel just as strongly as about, say, animal rights. This is especially noticeable when you bear in mind the ease of things like blowing up petrol stations, or vandalising SUVs. In cities, SUVs are loathed by everyone except the people who drive them; and in a city the size of London, a few dozen people could in a short space of time make the ownership of these cars effectively impossible, just by running keys down the side of them, at a cost to the owner of several thousand pounds a time. Say fifty people vandalising four cars each every night for a month: six thousand trashed SUVs in a month and the Chelsea tractors would soon be disappearing from our streets. So why don’t these things happen?
Even the climate criminals themselves seem at times startled by the absence of any serious, well-organized resistance to their planet-wrecking business. The following scenario, published in 2020 as part of a series on possible future developments in the climate crisis by none other than The Economist, traditionally a reliable yardstick of bourgeois sentimentality, anticipates the emergence of a clandestine group of radical climate activists named the “Earth Defence Army.” In reaction to an ongoing political failure to cut carbon emissions in the late 2020s, the EDA begins to collectively sabotage the property of oil companies it deems responsible for the climate crisis:
The first the world heard of the self-styled Earth Defence Army (EDA) was in February 2028, when the Jamnagar oil refinery in Gujarat, the world’s largest, ground to a halt after a crippling cyber-attack. In a video manifesto the EDA claimed responsibility for the attack, providing detailed evidence of its involvement. The group’s masked leaders warned that oil companies around the world would face similar attacks—as would banks and investors associated with them. “The planet cannot fight back,” one EDA member declared, “so we have no choice but to fight back on its behalf.”
The article provides a rare glimpse into the deep-seated anxiety that haunts the executive floors of the fossil capitalist world: what if those robbed of their lives and livelihoods by the climate crisis would, after all, choose to fight back with more radical means? In a moment of reassurance, the article concludes with the restoration of the current order, with the EDA failing to secure the backing of larger climate justice groups and eventually dissolving after internal disputes.
Equally unsurprisingly, however, the scenario also lacks any prospect of hope for the situation of the global climate, with the Paris Agreement failing and global emissions continuing to rise. The all-too-obviously contradictory terms of this “happy ending” were not lost on the readership: “Imagine living in a world where the decoupling from reality has become such a menace to critical thinking they’ve convinced themselves the Oil & Gas conglomerates are not the real terrorists here,” commented one Facebook user.
Perhaps the most moving fictional account of radical resistance in times of climate crisis, however, belongs to science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson. Robinson’s latest novel, Ministry of the Future, opens in the year 2025, when a devastating heatwave in India kills up to 20 million people over the course of a week. In the aftermath of the disaster, a group of determined survivors form a cell known as the “Children of Kali” and vow to take revenge for the atrocities of climate change: “The guilty need to know: even in their locked compounds, in their beds asleep at night, the Children of Kali will descend on you and kill you.” The Children of Kali rather quickly achieve what social movements had hitherto failed to do: they shut down global air travel through targeting commercial flights with drone swarms, sabotage coal power plants and effectively wipe out global dairy production using biological weapons.
The “terrorists” imagined by authors like Lanchester and Robinson are ordinary people, driven by feelings of bitterness, revenge and the desire for justice. Yet the efficiency with which they force changes upon a world at the brink of climate catastrophe is unparalleled, bypassing years of failed “climate politics” and toothless civil disobedience.
Just when the end of the world seems to get so close that there is virtually no time anymore to imagine the end of capitalism, groups of “professional climate revolutionaries” like the EDF or the Children of Kali step into the spotlight and assert that another world is still possible. More radical than those seeking to achieve climate justice within the professionalized NGO sector and at the same time more organized and resourced than the average full-time climate activist, they embody precisely the boldness and determination thus far lacking in efforts to force serious climate action.
Instead of relying on the capitalist state to initiate its own abolition or pushing fossil fuel companies to simply “behave better,” these groups take climate justice into their own hands, directly targeting the arteries of fossil capitalism and disabling the infrastructure that is killing the planet. In doing so, they represent not only a powerful force of retributive justice, but also a violent shattering of the collective silence that had enabled the climate crisis to occur in the first place — offering a glimpse of hope that we could still swing this somehow.
Picking up on a suggestion by climate theorist Andreas Malm [Note: Andreas Malm is known for his support for Hamas and his authoritarian approach, Enough 14], one could label this approach a kind of “climate Blanquism,” reminiscent of the ideas of 19th century French revolutionary Auguste Blanqui. Against the majority of the nascent working-class movement of his time, Blanqui argued that socialism was to be realized at the hands of a small, highly trained and well-prepared group of revolutionaries rather than through a mass movement, which he deemed incapable of withstanding a potential counterrevolutionary onslaught. Once the professional revolutionaries had seized power, according to Blanqui, they would institute a temporary dictatorship, abolish police and military, arm the working class instead and conduct mass political education campaigns, thus lending time to the awakening of proletarian consciousness. “Communism,” held Blanqui, “cannot impose itself suddenly, no more the day after than the day before its victory. To do so would be like attempting to fly to the sun.”
While Blanqui’s revolutionary elite was meant to pave the way for a socialist society by temporarily disarming the bourgeoisie and creating the conditions for communism, the climate Blanquism associated with groups like the Children of Kali or the EDF is primarily concerned with preventing the worst in times of global heating, ideally buying time for broader mass-based social movements to catch up and gather enough strength to push for a meaningful socio-ecological transformation.
Blanqui’s own attempts at revolution never quite succeeded — he famously spent half of his lifetime in prison for organizing multiple conspiracies and a half-dozen insurrections. The specter of the “professional revolutionary,” however, has since never ceased to haunt the radical imagination.
The legendary critical theorist and essayist Walter Benjamin later attributed to Blanqui a determination “to snatch mankind at the last moment from the catastrophe,” a revolutionary impatience that perhaps accounts for the appeal that climate Blanquist narratives exerts on the climate justice movement today. Arguably, the timeframe for effective climate action is extremely narrow: several important thresholds in the global climate system could already be reached in the next decade. So far, even mass demonstrations and climate strikes involving millions of people around the world have been incapable of reversing this trend, unable to effectively put up with the enormous power of the extractive industries.
The yearning for the appearance of some group of professionals that somehow saves us from the worst kind of mess can therefore be read as a projection of a deeper kind of anxiety that plagues the present radical zeitgeist, the realization that peaceful mass-mobilizations will likely not be able to avert a climate catastrophe. As one comrade recently confessed, “five more years, and I’ll probably either give up fighting completely or start blowing up things.”
Amidst this feeling of powerlessness, recent events have exposed the existing vulnerabilities of the current fossil-fueled world order, such as the grounding of the Ever Given cargo ship in the Suez Canal, or a recent cyber-attack that forced the United States´ largest pipeline to shut down. These have not escaped the attention of climate justice circles: could this be a precedent for political action?
In his much-discussed essay “How to Blow Up a Pipeline,” Andreas Malm discusses a whole range of examples of effective sabotage of fossil fuel infrastructure, including two Catholic social workers drilling small holes into the Dakota access pipeline, a 2006-2008 insurgency in the Niger delta, which shut down a third of the country’s oil production and a 2019 drone attack on the Abqaiq refinery in Saudi Arabia, which saw the country that accounts for 7 percent of global supplies take half of its capacity offline for days.
Rather than leaving such punctuated, surgical attacks on core infrastructure to insurgents with differing political agendas, however, Malm envisions “radical cadre-like climate SWAT-teams” intervening in the daily business of destruction. With his well-penned polemics, Malm — himself a veteran of the climate justice movement — has already inspired a new generation of activists to stretch the boundaries of civil disobedience. In Germany, a Twitter account named “Fridays for Sabotage” recently claimed responsibility for an attack on gas infrastructure, explicitly aiming to widen the strategic horizon of the movement:
We hope that sabotage will establish itself as a legitimate means of protest in the climate justice movement and that the discourse around forms of action will be influenced by it. There are many places of destruction, but just as many places of possible resistance.
In 2016, the Valve Turners, a group of climate activists, temporarily stopped nearly 70 percent of the crude oil flow from Canada to the United States by simultaneously closing the shut-down valves of five pipelines. Such individual actions of sabotage, however, are not yet embedded in larger organized structures of resistance — they remain single, symbolic “wake-up calls” addressed as much at fellow activists as at the fossil fuel industry itself.
Beyond the occasional rhetorical and actual trespassing, both climate activists and authors like Robinson, Lanchester or Malm have so far avoided stepping outside the zone of cautious flirtation with a more organized climate Blanquism: neither have they been engaged in, nor have they directly called for the establishment of a revolutionary collective of the kind they have written about (to be fair, if they were, they probably would not tell us).
So far, then, the professional climate revolutionary has yet to step out of the literary realm and appear in the real world. There is understandably a sense of unease with which these authors engage with the possibility of political violence in the name of climate justice. Grounded in the imperative to defend life and livelihoods, the broader climate movement has much popular support to lose in breaking with its disciplined commitment to peaceful civil disobedience. As Kim Stanley Robinson, who never actually describes the violence of the Children of Kali in great detail, puts it: “If prosperous people like me were to advocate violence in resistance to injustice, and people suffering in the current system took such violent action, they would then be the ones to get jailed or killed. So I don’t advocate political violence, in my person or in my work.”
Any attempts to organize effective radical resistance to the fossil capitalist order would indeed likely be met with the clenched fist of state repression. In the United States, the heartland of climate crime, many states have already passed legislation targeting climate activists. Similar developments can be observed in Brazil, Poland and the Philippines. As long as the ruling class enjoys wide ideological hegemony, attacks on fossil fuel infrastructure could be particularly divisive within the movement, especially given the implications that large-scale sabotage may have for those whose basic subsistence — not just their lifestyle — is more directly dependent on the given infrastructure. After all, the immediate consequences of power outages or supply crunches are often born by the economically least resilient, while the wealthy and powerful can simply hide in their wine cellars or generator-powered skyscrapers.
The fate of organizations like Earth First!, the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) or the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) — militant vanguardist groups that flourished on the West Coast of the United States and a number of other countries of the Global North between the late 1970s and the early 2000s — serves as a cautioning example. While being able to sustain an impressive (and peaceful) ecotage campaign over years, with targets including oil infrastructure and car dealerships, most active groups eventually dissolved in the face of increasingly high levels of state repression. Many factors may have contributed to their demise, including the missing relation to and support of a broader mass movement (though the ecotage activists were able to build remarkably tight-knit networks of care and support) as well as the failure to broaden the composition of the movement itself in terms of class and race — with the resulting ideological blind spots.
There is little doubt, however, that it was the harshness with which the state apparatus went after even moderate animal rights groups that ultimately defeated the movement. In 2004, amidst a surge in right-wing terror attacks, an FBI official declared “eco-terrorism” the “highest domestic terrorism investigative priority.” The government passed new laws such as the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act to further criminalize environmental protests, mobilized security agencies such as the NSA to surveil activists, and unleashed a media campaign — one likened to the Red Scare of the previous century — aimed at depriving the movement of any public legitimacy. Such relentless prosecution shows to what length fossil capitalist states are prepared to go to protect a system that is built on continued extraction and commodification of human and non-human natures.
These structural constraints also raise the question of the revolutionary subject: who would have both the capacity and the will to effectively outwit the fossil capitalist state and its repressive organs? Who would staff potential “climate justice SWAT teams?” Would it be relatively privileged college students alienated by the inaction of the present movement, or, as Robinson suggests, the survivors of a climate disasters? As is often the case with struggles against exploitation and injustice, the means needed to organize a prolonged large-scale campaign against fossil capital and the material interest to actually do so are distributed unevenly across different sectors of society.
For now, most climate justice groups are working with a more movement-oriented approach, focusing on building functional global structures of care, solidarity and collective action, rather than preparing for decisive strikes against the remaining climate crisis profiteers. There is certainly merit to this strategy. Notably, the most vital movements against fossil capital in recent years have taken place outside the long-industrialized colonial metropolis, taking the form of material struggles over land and water, for survival and dignity: Via Campesina, the Brazilian Landless Worker’s Movement (MST), the Indian farmers’ movement, insurgents in Mozambique and Nigeria, Indigenous movements in Bolivia, Ecuador and Brazil and socialist, feminist, anti-racist and Indigenous struggles around the globe.
Beyond the radar of the strategic debates in the Global North, these movements have already exhibited a militancy that is unparalleled in other corners of the climate justice movement, including various acts of sabotage, blockades, riots and large-scale mobilizations. Unlike the climate Blanquists, who enter the world stage from the shadows of secrecy, however, their militancy has emerged organically, embedded in existing structures of resistance and solidarity.
The global climate justice movement could play a key role in uniting and amplifying such popular struggles on a global stage. One example for how this could work comes from the ongoing Indigenous-led anti-pipeline struggles, such as on territory of the Indigenous Wet’suwet’en nations or along the planned Line 3, which have prompted other activists to turn to direct action in solidarity, including sabotaging railway lines. Carried by a determined and militant alliance of workers, farmers and students in both the Global North and South, large-scale climate strikes and other forms of collective action could go a long way in challenging the excesses of fossil capital in the coming decade and serve as a vantage point for the creation of structures of survival and mutual aid that are so urgently needed.
In all likelihood, however, even the presence of a rapidly growing and radicalizing climate justice movement will hardly prevent a dangerous escalation of a climate crisis that is already seriously affecting the majority world. This will mean that the climate Blanquist narrative — the hope for someone out there to save us at last from this mess — is unlikely to lose its strange appeal anytime soon. After all, we may be the first generation to see our global climatic system spin out of control. But we may also be the last generation with the chance to hold those in charge accountable for their crimes.
Time will tell if groups such as the Earth Defence Army will one day detach themselves from the cautious imaginations of certain authors and begin to exist in the real world. If they eventually do, they will certainly not lack targets to strike.
Elias König is a graduate philosophy student at Peking University and writes about philosophy, colonialism and the climate crisis.