What Will It Take for the Climate Movement to Win?

Blockades get the goods—and history proves it.

by Nicholas Beuret

17 March 2022

Supporters of the Wet’suwet’en Nation camp at a railway blockade as part of protests against British Columbia’s Coastal GasLink pipeline, February 2020. Codie McLachlan/Reuters

All the pledges, promises and plans for tackling climate change have fallen short. Despite decades of mobilisations, protests and campaigns, the best the climate justice movement has secured is the promise that governments will limit future global warming to a disastrous 2.1C. Emissions, after a short fall during the pandemic, are rising again. New coal, oil and gas fields are being put into production, while continuing high oil prices and the war in the Ukraine are driving calls for more fracking and oil and gas production in the US.

As set out last month by the IPCC, climate change is taking place more rapidly and with more dramatic effects than previously predicted. There isn’t time to spare. It’s no surprise, then, that after 30 years of climate activism, many have begun to ask: if what we’ve done so far has failed, what will it take to win?

State or sabotage?

Even the most optimistic of commentators argue that current government promises are far too meagre to actually be taken as solutions. At best, they are good first steps towards actual solutions. Yet despite decades of government failures, it is in governments that most of the climate movement puts its hope. As James Meadway writes, both green Keynesians such as Adam Tooze and eco-Leninists such as Andreas Malm call for a strong state to solve the climate crisis by imposing change on capitalism and recalcitrant elites alike.

The aim of this part of the climate movement has been to find the ‘right’ policy complex – some kind of win-win ‘green new deal’ acceptable to business, workers and government. This is because the sheer size of the problem of climate change requires a political actor that can work at national, regional and global scales. Despite past government failures, this part of the movement holds out hope that if we could only hit on the right policy complex, the crisis could be solved.

In recent years, government failures have also led to calls for a turn to sabotage, including blowing up pipelines. This isn’t a new call – ecotage has long been a (deliberately) unpublicised part of environmental protest. But as the climate crisis worsens, the idea that time has run out for policy solutions is starting to sound more like common sense. While some succumb to climate anxiety, others like Malm advocate for greater militancy from climate activists and the direct targeting of fossil fuel infrastructure.

While we might think of these two calls as strategically opposed, in truth they have a common basis. Both start from a lack of faith in the existing climate movement, and champion change via policy on the one hand and change via heroism on the other. Both seek to do what the movement seemingly can’t; that is, finally bring about the change we need. 

Neither strategy, however, aims to build the climate movement. Yes, both include plans for what the movement should do. But prescriptions don’t build a movement that can either force policy on government or sustainably sabotage fossil fuel infrastructure – let alone take any other form of action. They are strategic orientations for a movement we don’t have. What we need is a plan for building the power and size of the movement we do have.

Direct action is sustained disruption.

Sabotage is just one aspect of direct action – a broad range of political actions that seek to actively and directly disrupt something: the workings of a business or factory, a mine or an industrial agricultural farm. The environment movement has a long history of taking direct action – against the construction of dams and roads, against logging and mining, against whaling and GMOs. This history is one of innumerable victories.

In one of the largest studies of contemporary direct actions, it was found that over a quarter of “place-based movements” were successful, with projects being “shelved, suspended or delayed”. From victories against fracking in England to successful pipeline struggles in the US, from campaigns against mining in Serbia to resistance to fossil fuel extraction in Ecuador and Bolivia, direct action has achieved actual change.

It’s not hard to find examples of successful direct action campaigns. But it is hard to find examples of direct action campaigns in the context of recent UK environmental activism. Often what is called direct action is just the short term disruption of roads, trains or buildings – what we might otherwise call ‘militant stunts’ (the sort Extinction Rebellion specialises in). These stunts can be powerful, yes – but they aren’t direct action.

Direct action isn’t a stunt, but sustained disruption. It works not (primarily) because of its impact on public opinion, but because the disruption causes the mine, logging, road-building or construction project to stop. The key difference is that direct action lasts as long as it needs to to meet its specific goal – often months, if not years.

Historically, the environment movement’s successes have often come from the threat of sustained direct action. Protests, stunts, policy advocacy and divestment campaigns have all worked because of the constant threat of this action. But for that threat to be real, it needs to be conducted at length. Building a successful direct action campaign therefore demands a form of organisation that not only shuts something down, but produces the ability to sustain that shutdown. This is what we call a blockade.

Blockades get the goods.

Let’s take a look at an example of a successful blockade: the campaign against the proposed Jabiluka uranium mine on indigenous land in northern Australia. Two decades ago, Energy Resource Australia (ERA) set out to build the first of 25 possible uranium mines. The campaign to stop them started with the resistance of the Mirarr traditional Aboriginal owners, custodians of land never ceded, led by Yvonne Margarula, and soon gathered the support of a range of regional and national environmental groups. Through these groups, but largely through student activist networks recruited by the Mirarr people, they developed a system to recruit, train and transport more than 5,000 people to a protest camp set up near the site of the proposed mine. The camp lasted eight months, with daily actions and continuous blockades which led to over 530 arrests, while protests, rallies and actions took place nationwide – including a two-week blockade of the ERA offices in Melbourne.

With the mine stopped and the wet season approaching – and having changed public opinion substantially – the camp was packed down. This was far from the campaign’s only victory, as ERA was in dire financial straits, and there was the credible threat of the blockade being reinstated after the wet season. The Mirarr people continued to apply political and legal pressure, and in 2002, Rio Tinto – the new owners of ERA – announced Jabiluka would not be mined without Mirarr consent

The victory of the Mirarr people and the Jabiluka campaign holds many lessons for us: how to work as allies, how to utilise blended campaign tactics, and how to build public support for illegal actions. But the main lessons are how to nurture environmental militancy, skills and competency amongst activists and how to build capacity within a movement.

Blockades build movements.

Just how blockades build movements warrants further attention. In order to understand this fully, let’s first take a look at the kind of actions that don’t build movements. 

Different kinds of action require different forms of organisation. In the UK, militant stunts and demonstrations, such as XR-style actions and NGO-style rallies – both of which are aimed at putting pressure on governments – are currently popular. Militant stunts require recruitment, training and infrastructure that is geared towards short-term action. Rallies require pre-existing campaign networks to ‘get the word out’, alongside press and crowd control training. Neither look to train and support militants who can take action indefinitely. Blockades, however, do.

We can think of the blockade as having four key elements: recruitment, training, planning and logistical infrastructure, and permanence.

Recruitment comes first, and happens on a rolling basis. This is because the blockade is permanent: even if it only lasts a week, it must be understood as permanent because the point of the blockade is that it will last until it achieves its aims. Blockading therefore calls for a dedicated recruitment function aimed at continuous engagement and expansion in order to recruit and train the greatest number of people possible.

Training is crucial. This isn’t just training in the practical skills needed for a blockade – how to set up and maintain a blockade, how to confront the police, how to deal with security – but also in social and psychological skills, which are often more important – how to work as a group, how to persevere long term. To that end, the blockade requires countless sessions, workshops, weekenders and resources, along with systems to train trainers themselves.

Planning and infrastructure. All blockades are physical spaces which need planning, building and maintaining. Planning for the long term is different to planning a one-off event or action: while a one-off event focuses on people’s safety, blockades focus on how to reproduce the blockade itself – how to carry blockaders through the campaign, maintain the blockade site, and build a reserve of equipment and resources for blockaders to draw on.

Finally, the blockade is permanent. The horizon isn’t shifting public opinion, but physically stopping a project from going forward. As already noted, this requires a campaign to plan for the long haul from the beginning, on the assumption it will never end. But it means more than this: the blockade, as a way of organising, never ends. No one is coming to save us, and blockaders act on the understanding that each blockade is just one part of the wider disruption we need to create. Permanence, in other words, is the intention of direct action: the permanent disruption of the current regime of accumulation of value. 

All of this creates a specific kind of community of resistance – one that fosters continual direct action and militancy, and embeds direct action within a wider tapestry of mobilisation, protest and support. It also enables direct engagement with affected communities, workers and, in settler colonies, indigenous peoples – either by building solidarity with their struggles for justice and land rights or by the necessity of confronting the violence of colonisation that comes from any political activism on stolen land.

No more heroes.

The scale of the climate crisis terrifies us. It pushes us to look for quick answers and magical actions that can solve the problem right now. But organising is hard, and often slow. Conflict can’t be avoided, and there is real discomfort to putting oneself in the way of things.

But we need to look to this discomfort if we’re to have any hope of winning. Stunts, marches and petitions can all effect change, but only if backed up by the very real threat of sustained disruption. We need to build on what we already have: the networks, campaigns, actions and collectives. We need to look to specific sites and battles not as the solution to our impasse, but as part of the solution – and as key to creating the movement we need. The blockade is our political horizon – and toward it we must turn.

Nicholas Beuret is a lecturer at the University of Essex. His research focuses on climate change, work and the transition to a low carbon economy.

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