By Merel Smit & Jakobus Mühlstein
Merel has been active in the Dutch climate movement for years. Jakobus is an organic farmworker and climate movement participant. A German version of their article appeared under Corona-Clicktivismus schafft keine Klimagerechtigkeit on www.revoltmag.org.
In the midst of the corona pandemic, we are seeing a surge of online ‘activism’. For many people, this is associated with the hope of being able to engage in politically meaningful activities. For some, this leads to a retreat to the online sphere, as the Internet is one of the last remaining public spaces in many countries.
These virtual initiatives show that even in these difficult times, many people are willing to work for social justice. Nevertheless, online campaigns are inadequate. Many activists are aware of the fact that historically, it has been much more successful to fight oppression in ways other than all online likes, shares, and views combined. Which are the current activist approaches in the Dutch climate movement? Appeals to reason and conscience, or offensive defence?
The Climate Crisis is Caused by Burning Fossil Fuels, not by Lack of Likes
Many environmental groups are insecure about what to do ever since the Corona lockdown. This has lead most of them to retreat into digital space, as the internet is one of the only remaining public spheres in many countries. As a result, we are seeing an increase in online activity by activists. Fridays For Future NL decided to move their April 3rd strike online[i], encouraging people to post pictures of themselves holding protest signs to social media; Extinction Rebellion NL and De Goede Zaak have started a petition called Geen Poen Zonder Plan in which they demand that the government only bail out corporations if they make concrete plans to address their impact on the global climate, end their fossil fuel investments, protect their workers and invest in a green economy[ii].
These initiatives clearly show that there are many people willing to put a lot of effort into achieving social justice, even in these difficult times. However, there are shortcomings to online campaigns, which have to do with the underlying strategy.
Usually, the strategy behind online campaigns is based on the liberal idea of the superior argument[iii]. This concept of changing the world by employing the most convincing argument is still the dominant political approach, at least among activists with university degrees
Unsurprisingly, this is not how it works. Though the greenhouse gas effect has been known in the academic world and beyond since 1896[iv], this did not result in leaving fossil fuels in the ground. Neither did it prevent the oil giant Shell from colonising entire countries to make billions by exporting fossil fuels all over the world. Shell is not going to stop just because we say they are wrong. They will stop when we stop them. And here, most online campaigns remain toothless tigers.
In opposition to this liberal view on politics, there exists a long tradition of different radical approaches. These assume that the rich and powerful will not voluntarily give up their privileges.
In these approaches, the social constitution is seen as being in a state of constant change. Social development arises from conflicts between different social actors («antagonistic class relations» as Marx said). The conflicts also give rise to (oppressive) social structures; for example patriarchy, White Supremacy, Ableism and so on. Radicals seek to dismantle these oppressive structures instead of reforming them. We will not wait for better treatment.
It is a marathon, not a sprint
To stop injustices altogether we need to build up truly democratic counterpower. Counterpower emerges when people get together, establish reliable bonds and relationships among each other, and are committed to fighting for their liberation[v]. Establishing solidarity in the workplace or running a women’s shelter require completely different skills and much more commitment, and have a more lasting impact than letting a flashmob go viral.
Building up counterpower takes even longer than completing a bachelor’s degree. It is not a sprint, it is a marathon. To name a few international examples: The Southern Mexican Zapatistas prepared for ten years while hiding in the lacadonian jungle before they began an open uprising on New Year’s Day 1994[vi]. The revolution in the northern Syrian region of Rojava was preceded by decades of foundational community work in villages[vii]. No matter how pressing the struggle against climate injustices is, the systematic oppression of patriarchy, colonialism, capitalism and racism[viii] has been ongoing for many centuries. It took ages for these systems of oppression to come into being. To abolish them will probably take just as long[ix].
Building counterpower is about getting proper long term structures of resistance established. While we are writing this ‘radical’ article on radical politics, the Gulabi Gang, a self-defence squad of women in India, have been fighting abuse for over a decade.
The Gulabi Gang has been fighting abuse and domestic violence in India for over a decade. Women form self-defence squads, practice stickfighting and establish neighbourhood courts to intervene in domestic violence directly, in favor of the victims[x].
A more local, generally unrecognized example of counterpower is the Rode Hulp of the 1930s in Groningen. This organization helped thousands of communists and antifascists to evade persecution in Nazi-Germany. In collaboration with the German communist underground, international solidarity turned into a lifesaving practice[xi]. These examples prove that, even in the worst conditions, common people can fight oppression effectively. What do those examples from global history mean for our present situation? Or: What to do?
Radical grassroots politics cannot be replaced by online campaigns or petitions. Of course we need written and theoretical work, and this work can originate or be distributed online. To organize ourselves we need info nights, reading groups, writing, debating. Online or offline. And of course all the information on what we are organizing needs to spread. For different aims and audiences, different means might be useful – these can be leaflets, graffiti, art, books, blogs and so on. There are countless things we can do that do not require to gahter big crowds of people to gather. Let’s be creative!
In other political struggles, this is being pushed forward with great force already: In Northern Italian Milan, militants initiated the Brigade Volontarie per l’emergenza, which helps poor people in the face of the social collapse that came with corona and an indifferent government[xii]. Meanwhile, workers are going on strike all over Italy, demanding health protection and social security, and a wave of prison revolts is taking place. Radicals in Venice and many other cities are organizing networks of mutual aid[xiii], focussed especially on precarious workers in the logistics sector, call centers and agriculture.
In Frankfurt am Main, Germany, and many other places, rallies were organized demanding to open Fortress Europe and to #LeaveNoOneBehind in the Mediterranean Sea (#Grenzentöten #WirhabenPlatz). Demonstrators stood in public with 2.5 meters distance between them[xiv]. Refugee women stuck in an overcrowded camp on the Greek island of Lesbos began sewing face masks for both refugees and Greek islanders[xv]. These activities are built on already existing relationships and structures and achieve much more than anything done solely digitally.
Our conclusion: These activities root in already existing relationships and structures and therefore achieve much more than a solely internet-based agitation. As long as the current online frenzy is also based on liberal ideas, we will not achieve climate justice. As radicals, we want to build counterpower, stemming from communities, to end oppression. Online tools can help with radical education, organisation and mobilisation strategies, but they are not an end in itself.
What is radical climate politics?
In the autumn of 2018, the German police had enormous difficulties evicting the Hambach Forest occupation. Rental companies in Germany no longer dared to hire out hydraulic lifts, which the police needed to evict and dismantle the tree houses, because these lifts were being burned down (fortunately without any injuries to people).
In the end, the German police hired hydraulic lifts from the company Boels in the Netherlands, apparently out of reach of German environmental militants. This illustrates that the range of this form of autonomous counterpower could be significantly extended beyond national borders by a climate movement building up trustworthy relationships internationally, in style of the historical Rode Hulp. It proves that even large fossil fuel corporations like RWE or Shell are very vulnerable. Without collaborating business partners, these multinationals cannot even borrow a hydraulic lifting platform to clean their windows. Even in Corona times, such connections can be researched and potential actions can be prepared.
The history and present of the anti-nuclear movement offer countless examples: Wendland[xvi]veterans gave workshops on railway blockades at a climate camp in 2017. From personal relationships structures of counterpower were forged. These relationships must be maintained and expanded in Corona times too. How about pitching in as a seasonal worker on a farm nearby coal power plants? A great opportunity to scout the area.
In the medium term, joint struggles of climate activists and the willing parts of Shell’s workforce (and the workforce of Shells partners in crime) promise success. This requires concrete, deliberate blueprints for a radical dismantling of fossil industries and the simultaneous development of more attractive, more interesting and more meaningful jobs that work towards a socially and ecologically desirable future. The drafting of such projects and the necessary research are easily possible in Corona times – now perhaps even more easily than ever. Ultimately, the power in every company lies with its workforce: If one day the drivers of coal diggers go on strike, EndeGelände! becomes possible without mass action. However, the wage earners in mining will only open up to the climate movement if the movement can offer them a more appealing future strategy than the fossil fuel industries. Train drivers who drive coal trains can just as well steer other freight or passenger trains. Mechanics or technicians from fossil industries can instead maintain trams, bicycles or agricultural equipment. Instead of new projects, engineers could plan and supervise the dismantling of fossil infrastructure and its disposal and recycling. The Corona crisis shows that the state (suddenly) has enough money for transformation processes of all kinds, as long as the political pressure is on. Actually, why can’t money be made available to get rid of Shell and the like?
Prospectives for Action in Times of Corona
What we need right now is to unite on the side of the oppressed, and to draft a comprehensive analysis of the situation. This will ultimately help us to develop successful strategies to tackle the status quo – during, as well as after Corona – or before the next state of emergency. Global neoliberalism will continue to exploit communities and natural resources for profit. Shell and its associates will continue digging up the earth, no matter how well informed we sit home alone.
As gatherings and mass actions are not feasible in their previous formats, it seems like the hour has come for small group actions: Circles of friends can be remodeled into affinity groups between four walls. Depending on willingness and skills, various actions can be prepared and carried out.
Even in Corona times, it is possible to go for a walk (at least in Germany/the Netherlands). This is the perfect opportunity to get to know fossil fuel infrastructure, which can be found in many urban and rural areas.
Shell’s shareholders’ meeting is not its only important component – there are also its facilities, its equipment, its petrol stations, and so on. Scouting, research and preparation can begin right now. Small group actions are currently perhaps even more successful than ever – and future larger actions can also be prepared now.
Until now, the unbeaten champions in dismantling fossil industry are the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA), active since 2016. The Avengers are a clandestine, well-educated and well-trained guerrilla unit that acts in an organized and systematic manner: Using light weapons and speedboats, they destroy Shell and Chevron’s oil infrastructure in Nigeria. Their aim is to stop the export of oil from Nigeria altogether, and make Shell and Chevron pay compensation for the decades of destruction caused by oil production. As a result of their attacks, Nigeria’s oil exports fell to the lowest level in 20 years – at times the drop was over 40 percent[xvii]. Also in our parts of the world it is impossible to completely protect all fossil infrastructure from attacks by the climate movement. Those who search long enough will find vulnerable points: Online or offline.
Every day, people around the world are active in different ways in the fight against the destruction of natural resources, livelihoods and the climate crisis. Imagine what may be achieved if all these struggles are more closely connected in their fight against fossil capital and its burning of fossil fuels? From the Dakota-Access-Pipeline in North America to the anti-coal resistances of indigenous peoples in Colombia or Australia, to oil production in Nigeria, the refineries in the Netherlands, or German open pit mines and power plants? We can hatch the plan for the new Climate International at home; and can also start the networking with comrades-in-arms worldwide.
Want to find out more? Please enjoy reading the links in the footnotes.For very practical first steps on organizing a climate justice group we recommend this guide and for organizing during a pandemic, this guide (Dutch).
Do you want to contribute to this series? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and read our guidelines here!
[i] Read more here (in Dutch): https://fridaysforfuture.nl/digital-strike/
[iii] The contrasting pair Liberal/Radical is described in detail by Lierre Keith in the book Deep Green Resistance p. 61-112 (2011) by AricMcBay, Lierre Keith and Derrick Jensen. Seven Stories Press. New York. The book can also be viewed in full online. A shorter summary in Germancan be found on p. 150ff. in Nachhaltig Aktiv Sein und Bleiben; (2019) by Timo Luthmann. Unrast Verlag . Münster.
[iv] The Swedish scientist Svente Arrhenius first published a scientific paper in 1896, calculating the impact on the earth’s athmosphere by industrially emitted carbondioxid emissions: Svante Arrhenius: On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground.In: Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science Series 5, Volume 41, April 1896, pages 237-276. It can be found here: https://www.rsc.org/images/Arrhenius1896_tcm18-173546.pdf. The English and German articles on wikipedia give an overview of Arrhenius’ life: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Svante_Arrhenius https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Svante_Arrhenius
[v] 11 Theses by Kollektiv Bremen offers an inspiring proposal for revolutionary organizing in the present day. The Dutch version can be found here: https://archive.org/details/11ThesenOverOrganisatieEnRevolutionairePraktijk/page/n18/mode/2up
The original German version: https://de.indymedia.org/node/9708
More focussed on climate justice movements is the North American project and brochure Organizing Cools the Planethttps://organizingcoolstheplanet.wordpress.com/about-organizing-cools-the-planet/ and the German adaptation Wurzeln im Treibsand by ausgeco2hlt http://www.wurzelnimtreibsand.de/
[vii] An extensive American website on the topic: https://thekurdishproject.org/our-mission/
[viii] To name just a few… the list is by no means complete
[ix] An article that already challenged Climate Alarmism aka Catastrophism in 2009 is available here: https://www.buko.info/fileadmin/user_upload/doc/projekte/klima_assoe_engl.pdf
[x] Their own website: https://gulabigang.in/history.php and videos here: https://gulabigang.in/videos.php
[xi] Rode Hulp – De opvang van Duitse Vluchtelingen in Groningerland 1933-1940 by IPSO-geschiednisgroep Groningen (Redaktion: Ruud Weijdeveld). 1986. Groningen. https://www.geertsterringastichting.nl/publicaties/rode-hulp/ Since last year a German translation has been available too.
[xii] https://revoltmag.org/articles/ausz%C3%BCge-einer-chronik-aus-mailand-in-zeiten-von-corona/ The original was first published by the Milanese malaboca collective
[xiii] https://revoltmag.org/articles/ein-brief-aus-italien/ first published in Italian: https://poterealpopolo.org/brief-aus-italien-in-zeiten-des-coronavirus/. More letters from Italy here: https://blog.interventionistische-linke.org/corona/dalli-alluntore-packt-den-giftsalber first published by Laboratorio Occupato Morion: https://www.facebook.com/laboratorioccupatomorion/?_fb_noscript=1
[xv] https://www.zdf.de/comedy/die-anstalt/die-anstalt-vom-24-maerz-2020-100.html the whole video is worth watching (in German), it talks about the refugee sewers from minute 46:00 onwards
[xvi] The Wendland was and is the hub of the German anti-nuclear movement with a decades-long history of broad and successful resistance against nuclear waste sites.
[xvii] More information on their homepage (http://www.nigerdeltaavengers.org/), as well as from the British Guardian (https://guardian.ng/opinion/the-threat-by-niger-delta-avengers/), or the BBC (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-36414036).