It’s half past midnight on a Tuesday in February, and I’m in Clifton, Bristol’s most expensive suburb. In a quiet spot without street lights or security cameras, Ford*, Simon*, Holly* and Zack* – four of Bristol’s ‘Tyre Extinguishers’ – are getting ready for an evening of sabotage.
Adjusting their jackets and face coverings, the activists talk briefly about the streets they’ll hit (“let’s stay away from that road – that has lots of CCTV”). They then distribute leaflets and bags of lentils between them, and they’re off.
By now, the group has the process down to a fine art. Keeping chat to a minimum, they roam the streets looking for ‘sports utility vehicles’, or SUVs. When they find one, they check there’s no disability badge on the dashboard, and if not, one person deflates a tyre (“unscrew the valve cap, lentil in, screw it back on, done”) while another puts a leaflet on the windscreen explaining what’s happened and why. The whole process takes less than ten seconds. Then they move on to the next vehicle, a satisfying hissing sound following them down the street.
In just under an hour, the Bristol Tyre Extinguishers disabled around 80 climate-wrecking vehicles. This was more than in any other city that night, an international night of action which saw groups in London, Paris, Milan and elsewhere let down hundreds of tyres to mark one year of pulse-based activism.
But there may be more to come. In Bristol, eco-saboteurs told Novara Media that they need to take their campaign “to the next level” in the coming months, with a “diversity of tactics” that could include spray-painting SUVs to shame owners.
Since March 2022, the Tyre Extinguishers have caused quite a nuisance. To date, they claim to have deflated over 10,000 tyres across 15 countries, making headlines across the world.
Their aim is ambitious. “We want to make it impossible to own a huge, polluting 4×4 in the world’s urban areas” by “causing inconvenience and expense for their owners”, states their website. And so far, they’ve had some success: in Bristol, SUV owners have been forced to start putting anti-theft dust caps on their tyre valves, while the Telegraph has warned its readers not to buy SUVs in case they got targeted.
Ford tells Novara Media that the initiative was a direct response to Andreas Malm’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline, which took the climate movement by storm in 2021. In the book, Malm recounts a similar wave of action which took place in Stockholm in 2007, prompting a debate about SUVs in Swedish society and a temporary reduction in sales.
For activists in Bristol, it was also a response to gaps they saw in the movement. While 2019 saw Extinction Rebellion (XR) and the youth strikes push climate breakdown onto the global news agenda, Covid halted that momentum. But even before 2020, Simon says he was “just a bit done with Extinction Rebellion” and the dominant trends within UK climate activism more generally.
“There was very little appetite for small group direct actions”, he explains. “It was all about big marches and big demos, which have limited effect.” Since then, of course, we’ve seen the break-off of groups including Insulate Britain and Just Stop Oil – but while they’re certainly “pushing at the fringe”, they’re still using “similar tactics”, he says – namely, roadblocks.
The Bristol Tyre Extinguishers were attracted to their particular tactic for a number of reasons. For starters, they argue that deflating tyres constitutes proper direct action, in that it actually (if only temporarily) takes SUVs off the roads. Hundreds of thousands of hours are poured into mass climate marches, notes Ford. “Imagine you spent [those] hours deflating SUVs.”
Context is key here. The UK government is currently trying to criminalise more and more forms of climate protest, from locking-on to simply being “too noisy”. As Ford argues: “If it’s criminalised either way, you might as well do something that actually has an effect.”
The covertness of the tactic was also a big draw. While XR and Just Stop Oil have typically favoured deliberately getting arrested, this is something the Tyre Extinguishers try to avoid. Deflating tyres comes with risks, of course – but unless you’re unlucky, “you won’t have to go through the courts” and everything that comes with that, Holly argues.
In fact, it’s the clandestine nature of the action which gives it its power, they argue. “If we showed our faces, we’d just be a bunch of crusty hippies in the Bristol Post [a local newspaper],” Simon says. “But because people don’t know who we are, there’s that sense of we could be anyone, we could be anywhere – and therefore anyone with an SUV could be next.”
Then there’s the intended knock-on effects on the wider movement. One idea popularised by Malm’s book is that of the “radical flank” effect – that the militant wing of a movement can make more moderate factions appear reasonable by comparison, thereby shifting public opinion in the direction of their shared goals (in this case, tackling CO2 emissions).
But the Bristol Tyre Extinguishers hope that by committing their small acts of sabotage, they’ll also help to normalise this kind of action. Holly mentions the Earth Liberation Front, an environmental group in the 1990s who were tried as terrorists in the US despite taking great care not to hurt anyone.
“I think that has had a lasting impact on the climate movement, in that people are reluctant to take that step into sabotage”, she argues. “I think the Tyre Extinguishers are, kind of, making that a bit more okay as a way to do climate activism.”
A gateway tactic?
But their methods certainly have their limitations, too. Firstly, there’s only so many people who seem up for taking that step right now. Secondly, the novelty factor is already wearing off. Ford, for one, is getting “a little bored” of repeating the same tactic over and over. “It does get less exciting after the first couple of times,” he says.
The question, then, is how the Tyre Extinguishers might evolve and escalate their activities. While the Bristol group hasn’t agreed on any particular course of action, individuals involved have ideas for actions to be pursued – perhaps under a different banner.
Spray-painting SUVs is one Zack suggests. “It might be better to have the car moving but shamed,” he says. “So we ‘decorate’ the car to make people aware that it’s not that you [the owner] are successful or amazing, it’s that you’re a climate criminal who’s fucking over other people.”
Another is to target the industry itself rather than just SUV owners. “Despite the nature of the action, I’m not a big fan of putting the blame [for the climate crisis] on the individual,” Holly says. “It’s a systemic problem. So perhaps [targeting] SUV advertising could help to reduce trends.”
Beyond targeting high-carbon vehicles, Simon thinks climate activists should look to other movements for how to escalate their activities. “The most exciting movement in the UK right now is Palestine Action,” he says, referencing a pro-Palestine group which targets Israeli arms factories with direct action. “They’re doing, like, straight to the point, monkeywrenching-style stuff – they go to these factories, they smash them up.”
“They’re not afraid, and a lot of the time they actually get off from the charges,” he says. “It’s a very interesting model of direct action. And I think that the climate movement could learn a lot from them.”
The fact that the wider Tyre Extinguishers network is decentralised means strategic discussions are confined to informal chats within cities. But Holly thinks this could be a strength in terms of how things play out from here. “Because we’re not in contact with each other, we’re more likely to evolve differently and have a diversity of tactics spring up,” she says.
There’s a worry, however, that some activists might think that if they deflate a tyre or two, “they don’t also need to take it to the next level”.
“It fucking better escalate, otherwise we’ve failed,” says Holly.
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.