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One of the defining features of a crisis is that your horizons close in. It becomes harder to see big picture or to think long-term. As we creep towards the end of the second year of the pandemic, life - at least my life - has become suffocatingly narrow. In lockdown, every day is the same, and the world outside my neighbourhood feels increasingly abstract and remote.
But every now and then, I'm struck by the realisation of how extraordinary this moment is. The last few years have been transformative - as in, the world has transformed, and transformed each of us with it. And we will never return to being the people we were before.
When I look back on it, the seismic shift in my life wasn't the first lockdown in March 2020, or even the bushfires that devastated my homeland at the turn of the decade. Instead, I started to feel things escalate in the year 2018. After three decades of stasis in the climate conversation, things suddenly broke loose. In the last three years, we've transitioned into a whole new phase of the climate era.
You can see the change in governments and business, where the climate issue has gained traction with almost shocking speed. You can see it the sciences, where new adaptation measures are being proposed that would have seemed absurd just a few years ago. You can see it in the climate impacts, which are escalating far faster than our worst fears of even a decade ago. And you can see it in the realm of climate activism, which has gathered a stunning momentum since 2018.
Andreas Malm writes about the three cycles of climate activism in the 21st century. The first took place between 2006 and 2009, with a wave of mass actions and 'climate camps' in northern Europe. The second commenced in 2011 in the United States, with a sustained campaign of civil disobedience focused on the Keystone XL pipeline. This phase crashed to a halt when Trump took power and announced that the pipeline would be constructed at maximum speed.
The third phase, by far the largest, emerged in 2018 with the sudden rise of Greta Thunberg and the school strikes for the climate. The 'Fridays for Future' quickly built to become the largest coordinated youth protest in history, with 1.5 million strikers in March 2019. In the United States the Sunrise Movement gathered momentum, and in the UK, Extinction Rebellion shut down much of London over the summer of 2019.
Extinction Rebellion have pushed a vigorous model of non-violent civil disobedience - shutting down streets, taking over politicians' offices and staging disruptive protests. More recently, they've begun advocating for a Money Rebellion: a mass movement to take out bank loans and give the money to those resisting and repairing the harm caused by the bank, with no intention of repaying the debt.
Others have gone further still. XR draw the line at property destruction, but other activists are advocating for the direct destruction of fossil fuel infrastructure. On the night that Donald Trump was elected president, US activists Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya broke into a construction site for an oil pipeline in Iowa and burned out six pieces of heavy machinery using coffee canisters filled with motor oil. In June 2021, Reznicek was sentenced to eight years in prison.
These kinds of direct action will always be too small to make a meaningful dent in the machinery of fossil fuel production, but their goal is to send a message. When South African ANC guerllas bombed a coal refinery belonging to the apartheid government in 1980, the smoke was visible from Johannesburg for three days. As Frene Ginwala writes, ‘It was not about the quantity of oil that was lost… it was the column of smoke that was important. It shattered the myth of white invulnerability.’
At a more local level, John Lanchester wonders why we don't consider it our civic duty to run our keys along the paintwork of every unnecessary SUV we see in the city, costing the owner 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.'
This year I learned from several people in the financial sector that there are individuals working within banks who actively collaborate with climate NGOs. When the bank is on the threshold of making a big decision about its climate policy, these individuals will alert their activist allies. The climate NGO will then stage a public campaign against the bank, providing some external pressure which will hopefully help nudge the bank into making a more serious commitment.
One interesting hypothetical space for climate activism lies in digital disruption. The last decade has seen a huge rise in the number of ransomware attacks: hackers breaking into private computer networks and locking out the owners unless they pay a ransom. In recent years, the targets for these attacks have included school districts, government websites and hospitals.
In May 2021, an attack by the ransomware group DarkSide shut down the Colonial Pipeline Co, the operator of the United States' largest gasoline pipeline. Three weeks later, the largest beef producer in the world was hit. JBS SA was forced to close down many of its slaughterhouses around the world, paralysing the operation of the beef industry.
Dark rumours circulated on meat industry forums about those behind the attacks: 'It seems there’s (in)vested-interests that will go to any lengths to disrupt farming and the red-meat (probably any meat) supply-chain, to force prices higher and encourage the purchase of cheaper, plant-based substitutes. Be aware … and do whatever necessary to protect the ‘brand-names’, like meat, sausage, milk, etc, for they’re coming for them all.'
This time around, the culprits were almost certainly Russian cybercriminals rather than digital eco-activists. In the future, though, why not?
Ransomware attacks on destructive industries are one of a suite of more speculative projects being dreamed as the future of climate activism. Kim Stanley Robinson's Ministry for the Future posits a kind of 'black wing' to the UN's climate efforts, which carries out extrajudicial actions to disrupt the activities of fossil fuel companies and propagandists. These include drone strikes on targeted jets, biowarfare (seeding foot and mouth disease to cattle in order to stop meat consumption) and even targeted assassinations.
As a character in the book argues, 'If you were really from the future, so that you knew for sure that there were people walking the Earth today fighting change, so that they were killing your children and all their children, you'd defend your people. In defense of your home, your life, your people, you would kill an intruder.'
Because the truth is, our current efforts are not enough. Even with the best efforts of campaigners inside and outside of government, the system won't transition quickly enough to avoid disaster. For that we need everything - civil disobedience campaigns, sweeping regulation, financial divestment, new technology, massive behavioural shifts, better laws, and illegal activity too.
As Genevieve Gunther says, climate change isn't something we're doing, it's something we're being prevented from undoing.
And who's preventing us? Who are the people who are blocking the transition to a sustainable system, who enforce what Alex Steffen calls 'predatory delay'?
They are an interlocking network of politicians, bureaucrats, think tanks, lawyers, trade organisations, banks, militaries, private shareholders, hedge funds, oil companies, journalists and pundits. There are probably more than a million but fewer than ten million people worldwide who actively benefit from and abet the destruction of the biosphere. There can be no reasoning with them.
Sarah Miller writes, 'What more about climate change does anyone need to know? What else is there to say? ... All the right words about climate have already been deployed. It’s time for different weapons.'
The people who are fighting for the preservation of outdated, harmful systems in 2021 are not going to be persuaded by protest placards or scientific reports. The only option is to make the cost of their choice high enough that they're no longer willing to pay it.
One thing that the pandemic has revealed is that we are willing to do far more extreme things than we realised. Last year, each of us radically reshaped our lives in the space of a few short weeks. In the UK, politicians held off on announcing a lockdown because they assumed that people wouldn't be willing to make that sacrifice. But it turns out we're willing to go to extraordinary lengths to protect our community and each other.
If you're willing to suspend your life for months or years at a time, to refrain from visiting family or friends, to put your life plans on indefinite pause, in order to give our healthcare system the best chance of navigating this crisis: what else might you be willing to do?
I'm not an activist in any way, and I've never considered myself to be someone who'd risk my own comfort in order to save the world. But I have. All of us have. Now we know how far we're willing to go, and it's further than many of us imagined.
So now, as the impacts of planetary change are hitting faster and faster, and those ten million people dig their heels in to slow down any meaningful change, I'm starting to ask myself: what else is possible?
NEWS AND PROJECTS
The south-east of Australia is still in prolonged lockdown, so there's not much project news to announce. I've been working on new drafts of scripts, which I'm hoping I'll be able to share soon in some capacity.
Last month, Tasnim Hossain invited me for a conversation as part of NIDA's weekly series of talks. We spoke about making art in collaboration with researchers, the realities of theatre post-pandemic, and constructing a career in a fragile sector - check it out if yr curious.
In terms of recommendations, I just read and loved Adam Tooze's Shutdown, a history of the pandemic from late 2019 to mid-2021. A great high-level view of the last two years which usefully reset my perspective.
Musically, I've been sinking into some old Gas records - Königsforst, Pop and Zauberberg - which are just the ethereal spaciousness I need right now. But also, it's that month of the year where I listen obsessively to Pav Dundee's screwed version of Eric Carmen's Hungry Eyes - if you've never heard it before, sort it out.
And in the world of film, I watched and loved the awful new high school make-over-the-nerd-for-a-bet film He's All That - my review here.
As ever, you can get more background on my practice in my New Rules for Modelling series, or you can check out my website. And if you have any questions or offers that might make my life more interesting, feel free to get in touch.