Strike for Climate Justice

Scot.E3 has endorsed this campaign to repeal the anti trade union laws:

Workers need the right to strike for climate justice – repeal the anti-union laws** A joint statement from Earth Strike: Empower the Unions and Free Our Unions. Please add your or your organisation’s name! **

On 24 September, young people around the world struck for the climate. The youth climate strikes are vibrant and inspiring. They are also powerful: because they are defiant, because they are disruptive, because they are young people leveraging their collective power. Most of the strikers are too young to vote or hold political office, but by striking they are exercising power.

We want workers of all ages to follow the youth strikers’ lead. Workers have huge power, we need to use it! We need workers’ action to defend ourselves against the environmental dangers and deteriorating conditions brought about by the climate crisis. We need action to challenge and confront bosses and governments who care far more about profit than the planet and its people. It is time to revive the proud history of industrial struggles over social and political issues, including environmental ones – from the New South Wales building labourers’ “Green Bans” to the Lucas Plan.

For decades workers in the UK have been fenced in by multiple laws which make quick and effective strike action difficult, and action over political issues like climate change more difficult still. Workers do and will continue to defy the anti-union laws; but these laws have helped weaken the culture of organisation, direct action and solidarity.

We call on all organisations who seriously want to fight climate change to fight and vocally demand the abolition of all anti-union laws and their replacement with strong legal rights for workers and unions – including rights to strike freely at will, in solidarity with others and for political demands, and to picket freely.

We call on the whole labour movement to support the youth climate strikers in any way it can.

This statement was launched by the Earth Strike: Empower the Unions and Free Our Unions campaigns.

Image by Graham Checkley

Lighting a spark: How to Blow Up a Pipeline

Ende Gelände activists targeting a coal mine in 2019. Photo: Tim Wagner/Flickr

Harry Holmes reviews Andreas Malm’s ‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline’. Harry argues that the book gives a balanced assessment of the conditions which make sabotage, vandalism, and other forms of strategic direct action necessary in a warming world. This review was first published by Bright Green and has also been reposted on the rs21 website. Malm’s book is designed to provoke debate on strategy and tactics and we would welcome further contributions on these issues.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline starts with what will be a familiar image for many. It’s the yearly climate negotiations, activists have streamed towards the conference space, pleading with representatives to ratchet up their ambition to tackle the climate crisis. People block city traffic with banners, with activists dancing and playing music in the reclaimed streets. The next day brings a giant public theatre performance, with environmentalists pretending to be animals run over by cars whilst ‘negotiators’ walk around with signs saying ‘blah blah blah’.

Was this a collection of Extinction Rebellion activists performing and blocking traffic? Was it even earlier, in 2015 at the Paris negotiations? Maybe it’s 2009, during the economic crisis and the Copenhagen conference? No, this image comes all the way from COP1, the climate conference that started it all – in the lost world that was 1995.

Speaking straight from his experiences of this first COP, Andreas Malm’s recollection of these early climate protests indicates a wider malaise – a certain sluggishness of environmental strategy. Despite the growth in awareness around the climate crisis and the rapid increase in the number of people organising for environmental justice, there has been limited change in the actions climate groups are willing to take to defend life.

In How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Malm has written a short and gripping manifesto which aims to wrench the climate movement out of its complacency. By convincingly arguing against movements’ dogmatic attachment to milquetoast non-violence, Malm makes clear that as the climate crisis escalates so too must the tactics of those seeking to defend life. Not content with simply dispelling the misguided understandings of pacifism environmentalists hold, How to Blow Up a Pipeline gives a balanced assessment of the conditions which make sabotage, vandalism, and other forms of strategic direct action necessary in a warming world. Coming out of the pandemic, with movements regrouping and attempting to navigate the mess that is the 2020s, this book is the shock to the system the world needs.

Beginning with the pacifism many climate movements advocate, a significant portion of this book is dedicated to dispelling the often ahistorical, whitewashed, and faulty justifications given for non-violence. To do this, Malm separates these arguments for non-violence into two forms; a moral pacifism focused on the wrongness of violence from an ethical perspective and a strategic pacifism centred on the advantages to environmental movements from committing to non-violence.

Learning to defend ourselves

It becomes clear that Malm has little time for the first form of pacifism. He turns to the case of Mohammad Rafiq, a 65 year old who stopped a right-wing terrorist attack on an Oslo mosque in 2019. As the gunman entered the building, the pensioner ran at him, tackling the would-be shooter to the ground where, with the help from other nearby men, they disarmed and beat the attacker. Malm points out that such self-defensive actions and any similar attempts to defend from far-right violence are unacceptable from the perspective of moral pacifism. With the struggle against the climate crisis being understood as a similarly defensive movement, focused on protecting life, Malm argues moral pacifism should hold little sway as a dogma. It risks being too rigid in the face of the escalating need to act in life’s defence.

Environmentalists’ deluded reading of the history of social change is not confined to past lifetimes either. Malm points out how groups like XR continue to invoke recent events, like the Poll Tax Rebellion of the early 1990s, as inspiration for non-violent ‘civil disobedience’, despite the Poll Tax famously being scrapped as riots rolled through London. Such a reading of history is not only one sided, but an act of positive erasure – an erasure which works to the detriment of the environmental movement’s strategic horizon.

Finding the radical flank

Looking at each of these past movements, Malm doesn’t reject the importance of the non-violent element. In fact, he suggests the opposite, the existence of a radical flank willing to commit acts of violence combined with a growing mass of non-violent organisers made change possible. Non-violence allows movements to grow larger quickly, it can secure sympathetic coverage in the public eye, and it can prevent government escalation. Because of this, non-violence always has a role.

Of course, no history of environmental movements would be complete without an assessment of the violent direct action of groups like Earth First! and similar Liberation Fronts in the 1980s to 2000s, who were responsible for the destruction of many a logging site. Malm suggests that their ultimate collapse was, at least in part, due to the lack of a wider mass movement where they could position as the radical flank. Malm’s polemical insight is that mass non-violence is the necessary condition for the impactful escalation to violent tactics and today, with climate strikes and Extinction Rebellions aplenty, we are not short of mass non-violent movements.

In short, it is not either/or but both, together in an escalating cycle. Malm argues the current environmental movement’s failure to accept the potential co-existence of both violence and non-violence reflects the wider collapse in revolutionary politics since the 1980s. In response to this collapse:

We have to learn how to fight all over again, in what might be the most unpropitious moment so far in the history of human habitation on this planet.

To begin these wide-ranging strategic conversations about fighting the climate crisis, Malm suggests focusing on two general goals – there is a need to announce and enforce a growing prohibition on new emitting devices, as well as rapidly reducing the lifetime of the polluting infrastructure and devices which already operate. The question, when bringing these general ideas down to Earth, is how precisely the environmental movement may go about this?

Building on Henry Shue’s distinction between luxury and subsistence emissions, Malm points to the increasingly violent role of luxury emissions, and the urgent need to focus efforts on these devices, whether SUVs or planes. There are several clear arguments given for focusing action on luxury devices, these are worth listing in full, albeit paraphrased:

  • As the effects of climate change are here, the harm from these luxury devices should be understood as immediate.
  • Luxury emitting devices like planes and cars allow the super-rich to also be hypermobile and escape the effects of climate change.
  • The ideological role of these devices is the championing of destructive lifestyles.
  • There is an ethical cost of how the money could have been better spent mitigating and adapting society to climate change.
  • In any reduction of emissions, it is better to reduce luxury emissions first rather than those necessary to secure subsistence.
  • Finally, and perhaps most crucially for Malm’s argument, there is the supremely demoralising role that these devices play. After all, if we cannot even get rid of SUV’s how are we meant to move towards a sustainable society?

Recognising this, Malm points to the need for violence to not just include the strategies of sabotage preventing new fossil fuel infrastructure from being built. It should also encompass the ways in which sabotage ‘can be done softly, even gingerly.’ Pointing to the mass movement in Sweden which deflated the wheels of SUVs during the night, Malm argues environmentalists should be comfortable engaging in extensive acts of vandalism targeting the luxury devices common in the Global North. Such violence would show how the ‘rich cannot have the right to combust others to death’, as well as preventing new emissions.

Unleashing new tactics

In opening up the horizon beyond non-violence, Malm invokes a further difficulty – precisely under what conditions does violence become necessary? What form might violence take? How to Blow Up a Pipeline makes clear that violence constitutes attacks on property, coming under the messy monikers like sabotage, vandalism, and demolition. This book is unequivocal that this does not extend to people or animals, nor property which is necessary for their subsistence. This still leaves much on the table, but Malm’s book should be read as a defence of destruction to property in a similar school as that of Osterweil’s In Defence of Looting.

Malm invokes scholars of direct action like William Smith, whose research points to important conditions which should be met for the successful escalation from non-violence. For Smith, escalation succeeds only if action would stop something which would likely cause harm, where mellower non-violent tactics have been exhausted, and where action is based on some wider ideal or charter, such as the Paris Agreement. Malm makes clear his view that these conditions are largely met for most fossil fuel infrastructure.

There are still several objections to escalation which could be posed. One is that governments have supremacy when it comes to repression and violence. As a result, escalation from the environmental movement could result in extreme crackdowns from states across the world. Malm accepts this asymmetry in power, in fact he suggests that it extends far beyond the ability of the state to commit violence. However, Malm points out that there is no law that this asymmetry ‘can never be overturned from below.’ Fighting climate change is a David vs Goliath fight in every sphere, whether economic, social, or militaristic. If we accept asymmetry as an argument against moving beyond non-violence, it would also mean abandoning nearly every climate struggle.

So Malm turns to the crucial argument many make for non-violence, that of popular support. The old story goes that abandoning non-violence leads to declining public opinion and a collapsing movement replete with infighting. Violent acts would be a ‘negative radical flank’, cutting into the wider non-violent movement. On the first issue of public opinion, Malm argues the role of social movements is not to take ‘an existing level of consciousness as a given, but rather to stretch it.’ Violence needs to stretch and drag society forward. This means that violent actions should be clearly explainable and acceptable in their wider context, with Malm suggesting perhaps the best strategy is to lie in wait for the next extreme weather event to strike at luxury emissions. With regards to the collapsing movement, Malm argues that the radical flank must simultaneously be prepared to be disowned by the wider movement, whilst also being receptive enough that in the case of either escalating repression or public backlash it can call off its actions.

The New Climate Laboratories

With regards to this last point, how are these contradictory characteristics to be satisfied? Being able to balance the tightrope of competing arguments for and against escalation is not something that Malm can answer in around 150 pages. In such a short work, one is left desiring the detail, the roadmap, where in practice the neat lines Malm draws can be observed. These will never appear, as only practice and thought together can bring this flourishing. What How to Blow Up a Pipeline does is effectively indicate strategic considerations and reflections which must be borne out in the practices of climate movements. There is no perfect tactic, no silver bullet, only a magazine of possible actions which environmentalists need to constantly assess as the crisis gets worse.

Malm puts his faith most of all in the climate camp movements like Ende Gelände and Reclaim the Power, where activists come together in mass numbers to shut down fossil fuel infrastructure. These camps can be built easily, allowing the movement to spread horizontally whilst also being planned well in advance. As the number of attendees rises, so too does the capacity to outmanoeuvre police and disrupt fossil fuel infrastructure. Malm invokes these spaces as the ‘unrivalled laboratory for learning this fight.’ If environmentalists are to develop the strategic acumen to pull the breaks on emissions, then what is need is a proliferation of these camps and any other equivalent ‘laboratories’ – we need spaces where climate activists can come together to learn and act with a sense of militancy. In the 2020s, Malm’s book points to the need to let a thousand laboratories bloom.

The final pages of How to Blow Up a Pipeline reflect on the opposite tendency to such escalating militancy – a climate fatalism which presents breakdown as inevitable. Many writers are encouraging society to ‘learn how to die’ and bring a deep pessimism about our capacity to change course. Whether in the work of Franzen, Scranton, or others, Malm rejects their pessimistic understandings of society’s future as that of a particular class interest. It is comforting for the rich of the Global North, unable to accept their need to change production and consumption, to ‘project this weakness of the flesh onto society’ and doom it to climate collapse. What is harder is internalizing the continued need for resistance.

With every part per million counting, with every stopped pipeline saving lives, and with every minute counting, the truth is the opposite of what the climate fatalists suggest. Looking to those who died in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising or who resisted within the extermination camps, Malm invokes the continued gesture of struggle against all odds. As Malm puts it:

Precisely the hopelessness of the situation constituted the nobility of this resistance. The rebels affirmed life so extraordinarily robustly because death was certain and still they fought on. It can never, ever be too late for that gesture. If it is too late for resistance to be waged within a calculus of immediate utility, the time has come for it to vindicate the fundamental values of life, even if it only means crying out to the heavens.

One hopes, like Malm, that it does not come to this, that we come to tackle the climate crisis with the ambition it needs before such hopeless struggle is necessary. What How to Blow Up a Pipeline does is act as a rallying cry for a climate movement far too comfortable in its ways, at a time where bold action is more than overdue.

How to blow up a pipeline is published by Verso at the beginning of January 2021 – we will have a small number of copies available for £10 (including UK postage). To enquire or order use the contact form.

Two critical responses to the EAG ‘recovery’ report

Yesterday we published Scot.E3’s case for immediate and radical action on climate and social justice.  We contrasted our proposals with the recommendations of the Scottish Government’s Economic Advisory Group (EAG), which were published on Monday.  Here two regular contributors to this blog give their personal reactions to the EAG report.  In the coming days and weeks we want o publish more on this topic, but not just on policies and plans, we need to discuss movement building so that we can apply the kind of pressure that is required to achieve the system change we need.

Mike Downham writes of the EAG report:

77 pages of neoliberal propaganda, with passing references to climate change, inequality and racism to soothe the voters – all empty rhetoric, devoid of any proposals on how to address these social injustices other than through increased, top-down private sector activity.

But what else did we expect from a group of eight people hand-picked by a Government wedded to ‘Sustainable’ Growth (sustainable for capitalists) and to extracting the last drops of oil and gas from the North Sea, and which put profit before people’s lives by obsequiously following the UK Government’s response to the Covid-19 epidemic? 4,878 people have died in Scotland as a result of the epidemic at the last count on 16th June. People are still dying as the report is published.

That Graham Smith, previously General Secretary of the Scottish trade Unions Conference, which represents more than 500,000 workers, has put his name to this report is an ultimate manifestation of the successful co-option by neoliberal governments of the trade union bureaucracy.

On Just Transition we’re given “There is the jeopardy, as well as the opportunity, of the transition associated with climate change”, along with carbon capture and storage in the North Sea, and “positive behavioural change”.

This is not the time to “recast a new model”, or to follow “abstract arguments around the creation of new institutions”. By which the Group presumably means a National Climate Service, consisting of the National Investment Bank, a publicly owned Energy Company, and the creation of 100,000 carbon saving or carbon neutral jobs essential for improving the quality of life for people across Scotland, with training opportunities for all those who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic, the many more who will soon lose their jobs as the recession bites, and those who didn’t have a job to start with.

Instead we should rely on the “might of the private sector” to create more jobs, because (logically?) that’s where 79% of jobs currently are. The “backdrop” is “constrained public sector resources”, which we know is nonsense.

This has to be based, the Report says, on “transforming some aspects of the relationship between business and the Scottish Government” a relationship which is working “reasonably well for financial services, agriculture and renewables”, but not well enough in other sectors. “If one party in a relationship says it’s not working, it isn’t. This could be “an opportunity for the Government to draw on businesses to second senior executives”. The Group reminds the Government that an election isn’t far away, so it had better get on with improving its relationship with business if it doesn’t want to lose its voters. The tone is overbearing, arrogant and amounts to bullying.

Apart from the pressure of elections, and the need to create more private sector jobs fast, there’s no hurry. Change will take time and will rely on “patient capital”. We need to build an attractive prospectus for inward investment. We also need to develop a new “pragmatic approach to regulation and planning”, for which read privatisation.

Overall, “recovery” is taken to mean recovering growth, sticking to the 2015 Scottish Economy Strategy with its ambition for Scotland to reach the top quartile of OECD countries, as measured by GDP.

There is much further detail in the Report but given that the principles are set in the four pages of the Foreword, it’s questionable whether it’s helpful to study the proposals further.

The underbelly of the report which we can focus on is the triad of trusting the private sector to alleviate social injustice, which history has demonstrated time and again fails; the lack of urgency in relationship to global warming; and a top-down approach as opposed to grassroots leadership, which history has plenty to say about too.

So here, in the flesh, is the “madness”, that ScotE3 and many others have warned against. If we allow these recommendations to fool us, and don’t promote alternative, coherent and more attractive recommendations quickly, we will have lost any possibility of slowing down global warming, and of effectively addressing poverty, inequality and social justice in general. We know, already knew, that only a mass movement will save us against significant attacks from capitalism, of which this Report is the latest.

Matthew Crighton’s view of the report: Green Recovery – what a disappointment

Yesterday started with hearing on Radio 4 the Pope say that the recovery must be ‘just and equitable’. He called for integrity not hypocrisy from politicians. Then came Mark Carney on how getting to net zero is part of the solution to the crisis, for companies as well as countries. He reminded us that net zero is ‘the law of the land’. Would these two be the warm-up acts to the revelation of truly transformative recommendations from the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery?

Image: Public Domain CC0

What a let down, then, to hear at lunchtime from ex-banker Benny Higgins who chaired the Group, set up “to advise the government on actions for economy recovery but also to build a fairer, greener and more equal society”(Nicola Sturgeon 17 April). There were lots of words from him and Nicola, but little useful content that I could find.

There are mentions of inequality in this report – but not one of them comes in the Recommendations! Nothing here for the Pope.

There is a section on prioritisation and delivery of green investments. It reads quite well – but it stands on its own and doesn’t permeate into any of the other recommendations. This is ticking the green box, not delivering a green recovery. The authors haven’t grasped the zero carbon imperative which Carney reminded us of. Instead of using the recovery to drive urgent decarbonisation action, they want to use green investments to boost the economic recovery which is the subject of the other 23 recommendations.

Left to Benny Higgins and his crew, that would be a very conventional recovery. One good thing is that it does call for a boost to investment levels, but it has no suggestions about how to do that apart from asking Westminster for more funds or borrowing powers. No plan for Scottish Green Bonds here, no call for a massive increase in the capitalisation of the Scottish National Investment Bank, just a suggestion that it should invest in housing – which looks dangerously like a dilution of its commitment to funding a Just Transition.

It’s a set of headings taken from the conventional economic development text book which has brought us to the dire state our economy was in before Coronavirus. Why set up an Advisory Group when you have Scottish Enterprise to write this stuff, and do a better job? It’s as if a Green New Deal had never been proposed!

One idea which got some attention is a business-led Scottish Jobs Guarantee scheme which would offer employment for at least 2 years to 16-25 year olds. This is a worthy objective but it misunderstands the challenge. It’s based on the Edinburgh Guarantee, an excellent initiative to address problems of a relatively small layer of young people not in education, employment or training at a time when unemployment was relatively low. We are, however, facing a scenario in which businesses of all sizes will be struggling to retain existing employees, let alone take on new youngsters.

The reference point has to be the mass unemployment of the 1980s and 1990s and the appropriate responses have to include a publicly-led intermediate labour market programme – a Future Green Jobs programme which funds rate-for-the-job employment in green projects to give people skills needed in decarbonising the economy. Not just for young people, there must be a clear offer to the adults who lose their jobs as recession bites. Apart from the expansion of PACE services, which support people facing redundancies, and platitudes about skills and lifelong learning this report offers nothing to them. The Advisory Group doesn’t even want to try a Universal Basic Income.

Disappointed doesn’t do justice to my feelings about this report! Instead of being the climax of a gig with the Pope and Mark Carney as warm-up acts, this was like an embarrassing local band trying to sound like they could share a stage with the stars but fumbling their words and striking some discordant notes as well.

Now that this report has come, and will probably sink without trace, we need to look forward to something sharper and more radical from the Just Transition Commission (it’s Call for Evidence is open until 30 June). And we need to continue to press for the Scottish Government to come forward with a list of specific programmes and policies which can make a difference, like a massive energy efficiency programme for our cold and draughty homes. Nicola Sturgeon can still bring on policies for a just and green recovery but she won’t find much in this report to help her.