The case for climate radicalism

March 20, 2023

The impacts of climate change are increasingly being felt all across the globe. Burning fossil fuels costs the lives of almost 9 million people on a yearly basis, not to mention the countless lives of non-human life forms. Yet, efforts to reduce reliance on fossil fuels are not anywhere close to what is necessary to prevent more grim scenarios from becoming reality, even though we have the solutions needed for a transition (renewable energy, carbon sequestration tech, etc.). Meanwhile, the climate movement is reevaluating the effectiveness of its tactics, lately adding “throwing soup at art” to the mix, wondering whether peaceful and mild forms of activism will ever be followed by actual change. A recent book by professor of human ecology Andreas Malm, How to Blow up a Pipeline, also recently adapted into a movie carrying the same title, makes a case for diversifying the repertoire of climate activism with more radical forms of action in order to make the movement successful.

Historically, activist movements were only successful when they also consisted of a more radical wing. Malm debunks the idea that a radical wing will lead to less support from the public. Consider, for instance, the fight for racial justice, with the radical Black Panthers paving the way for a less radical party, represented by Martin Luther King, to appear as the more moderate option. And so, the climate movement would be justified in breaking with its non-violent ways as well in order to become effective, as Malm’s argument goes. Because the stakes– the future of our planet and of humanity – are high, more radical actions in terms of property destruction could be legitimized. In the cli-fi book Ministry for the Future a violent environmentalist group is pictured as an unwanted but ultimately effective part of the transition to a greener future.

Malm’s book stirred up a lot of debate, leading to the cancellation of public events discussing the book, including in the Netherlands. This raises a lot of interesting questions. When is sabotage or even violence legitimate, if ever? According to some environmentalists, climate change is violence, as the number of deaths shows us. And because the fossil industry just saw a year of record profits, making investments in the industry even more certain, and government action is missing, sabotaging the fossil infrastructural machinery is the only way to forge change. The answer can also be understood in an eco-marxist frame; Malm’s analysis is one of historical dialectical materialism. Climate change is violence and people have to wake up, join the revolution and fight oppression by the fossil regime. Revolution is then necessary from an ideological standpoint.

Burning questions:
  • The battle of climate awareness is almost won, with the group of deniers becoming smaller and smaller. However, growing awareness has not led to a green transition yet. Climate activists are often working to protect the lives of others and of ecosystems. Can we expect more radical actions when the impacts of climate change are felt directly by people in the west themselves?
  • Current more “radical” environmental groups include Sea Shepherd, Earth First!, the Earth Liberation Front, and the Animal Liberation Front. Will we witness the rise of more of these groups and what can we expect from them?
  • The act of sabotaging oil pipelines is becoming more prevalent, especially in countries where local communities are left unrewarded and are faced with the destruction of their environment. Nigeria recently experienced a deadly pipeline sabotage action. Where can we expect more and similar actions and what will it trigger in terms of investors and policy response?
  • While protecting the Amazon rainforest, many activists go “missing” or are reported dead. Will the rise of climate activism also lead to more deaths on the side of the activists?
  • What to expect from younger generations? For young adults, the current ecological crisis is a formative experience, shaping their worldviews and behavior. The vast majority of Gen Z say protecting the environment is critical for the future of the planet.

About the author(s)

At FreedomLab, Julia Rijssenbeek focuses on our relationship to nature, sustainable and technological transitions in the food system, and the geopolitics of our global food sytems. She is currently working on her PhD in philosophy of technology at Wageningen University, investigating how synthetic biology might alter philosophical ideas about nature and the values we hold, as well as what a bio-based future may bring.

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