In a world on fire, is there time for disobedience?
Faced with ecological ruin on a planetary scale, the climate crisis greets us – as Martin Luther King, Jr. once remarked with regard to imperial war and the threat of nuclear annihilation – with the “fierce urgency of now.” There has perhaps never been a more important time for mass collective action, given the consequences of continued inaction. As David Wallace-Wells recently argued in the London Review of Books, millions of people are already dying each year because of air pollution alone; “the numbers,” he writes, “are so large that even the superlatives of disaster fail.” The lives and livelihoods of millions more have been upended by extreme weather, food insecurity, ravaged ecosystems, and the forms of political destabilization and economic collapse driven by the consequences of a too-rapidly warming planet. The crisis is not coming for us sometime in the future; the crisis is already here and it is already deadly.
The scale of the crisis also seems to suggest – and here I borrow King’s words again – that “there is such a thing as being too late.” Even as the deathly consequences for human and nonhuman life become ever more evident, states have repeatedly failed to curb emissions, and continue to invest in fossil fuel extraction and combustion (not to mention a host of other industries, from mineral mining to industrial agriculture, which are reliant on fossil fuels and responsible for their own enormous share of emissions and carbon release). Political leaders have gathered each year since 1995 for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, to little effect. While the “steady procession of COPs have produced a great deal of political drama,” environmental political theorist Alyssa Battistoni wrote this past November in Sidecar, they “have not yet managed to reduce carbon emissions” and are consequently greeted by increased cynicism amongst the public. Indeed, despite decades of summits and a score of multilateral agreements, the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Global Energy Review 2021 indicates that recent gains in renewable energy sources have been dwarfed by dramatic increases in fossil fuel use. The IEA has projected a 1.5 billion tonne increase in the carbon dioxide emissions related to energy generation in 2021 – the “second-largest increase in history,” and the “biggest annual rise in emissions since 2010.” The logic seems clear enough: even as the leaders of wealthy, powerful nations have “learned to speak the language of climate justice,” Battistoni concludes, they have “built their wealth on ecological destruction, and…are now using that wealth to escape its consequences.”
This mix of urgency and stasis – the increasing untenability of living amidst compounding crises, subject to political and economic orders which do little to prevent them (and in fact speed them along) – has long defined the activism of the climate movement. Recounting the cycles of mass mobilization undertaken by climate activists in the last two decades in How to Blow Up a Pipeline, activist and historian Andreas Malm observes that the embrace of mass disobedience and nonviolent direct action by the climate movement has “spun out of an insight, more and more widely shared: the ruling class really will not be talked into action. They are not amenable to persuasion; the louder the sirens wail, the more material they rush to the fire, and so it is evident that change will have to be forced upon them” (20). The repertoire of tactics adopted – from the massive, recurrent school strikes of Fridays for Future to the traffic blockages favoured by Extinction Rebellion to occupations led by Indigenous water protectors like those at Standing Rock – evinces, as Malm writes, a need to “disrupt business-as-usual.”
Disrupting business-as-usual, however, is not a simple matter. Disobedience, understood here as a broad category of actions that contravene existing law or policy in order to provoke and facilitate political change, is animated by a tension between what Frances Fox Piven calls “disruptive power,” on the one hand, and what we might think of as communicative power, on the other. Disruptive power is premised on the recognition that the maintenance of forms of domination rely on the ongoing cooperation of masses of ordinary people, and is wielded from below to withdraw such cooperation, at least temporarily. In Piven’s terms, it is the power to “defy the rules and dominant interpretations governing social relations” in order to force concessions by making the status quo ungovernable (Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America, 28). Disruptive power enables agents not ordinarily seen or heard as subjects worthy of engagement and response to be recognized and addressed, and provides one possible answer to the problem of political stasis and the dismantling of institutionalized avenues for redress.
At the same time, however, theorists and practitioners of disobedience also suggest that disobedience is more than mere disruption. The point, after all, is rarely as simple as compelling a discrete change in policy; rather, the forms of domination or injustice under protest – and the need to make recourse to disobedience at all – signal broader systemic issues, from a breakdown of democracy to entire social orders defined by racial hierarchy, colonial rule, and (in the case at hand) a global system of extractive carbon capitalism both catastrophic in effect and rather well-insulated from popular contestation. For the larger, messier, and ultimately necessary transformations needed, disobedience has to do more than disrupt – it has to enable publics to see problems in new ways (or see them as problems for the first time); it has to build broad constituencies and mass appeal; and it has to cultivate new solidarities between groups and individuals who come to see their fates as tied and their futures as shared (again, perhaps for the first time). This is what I mean by “communicative power,” a term I borrow and adapt from the work of philosophers Jürgen Habermas and Hannah Arendt: the capacity to cultivate new collectivities who do not merely express anger, outrage, or dissent, but enable and enact new forms of politics.
And therein lies the tension: the spectacle of disruption can often attract public support or disclose the shape of the problem, but the experience of it can also cause backlash and increase support for state repression. Disobedience, contends philosopher Robin Celikates, requires both “moments of real confrontation (that will in many instances be seen and categorized as violent)” as well as communicative protest designed to dramatize political problems and attract support (“Rethinking Civil Disobedience as a Practice of Contestation,” 43). The two elements rely on each other – communication without confrontation is likely ineffectual, but confrontation without symbolic communication collapses into avant-gardism or a politics of brute force – yet stand in tension with one another. This tension defines the ethical and strategic dilemmas all mass disobedient movements face: there are times when disruption discredits a movement, endangers the already vulnerable, or is used by the state to justify a crackdown; there are other times when the attempt to reach a mass audience and appeal to the broadest possible group drains the action of its material force – the capacity to shift power imbalances. In discrete instances, these may be necessary trade-offs; but on the whole, movements must attend to both faces of disobedient power and attempt to hold them both in view.
Communication without confrontation is likely ineffectual, but confrontation without symbolic communication collapses into avant-gardism or a politics of brute force.
One way that climate activists (as well as many others in the history of disobedient activism) have attempted to walk the tension between disruptive and communicative power is through a disciplined, public commitment to nonviolence. In his recent book Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?, long-time environmental organizer and activist Bill McKibben describes nonviolence as a “bulldozer for reshaping the zeitgeist” (130). Recounting a familiar history of nonviolence from Thoreau to Gandhi to King and quoting Jonathan Schell, McKibben describes nonviolence as enabling the relatively powerless to win an unfair fight against those with much more money and more power: it is a “method by which ‘the active many can overcome the ruthless few,’” upending the balance of power without sacrificing mass appeal. Implicitly invoking what Gene Sharp dubbed “political jiu-jitsu,” McKibben argues that nonviolence renders violent repression powerless: in full view of the public, the spectacle of states and corporations unleashing attack dogs and police brutality on nonviolent protestors backfires – it undermines state and corporate legitimacy, embarrasses them publicly, and forces them to make concessions. And it increases the mass base for the movement, who win the public’s sympathies and support.
Though motivated by urgency, McKibben rightly notes that nonviolence is an expansive politics extending far beyond direct action and civil disobedience to “the full sweep of organizing aimed at building mass movements whose goal is to change the zeitgeist and, hence, the course of history” (130). There are no shortcuts here; nonviolence may provide a method for holding disruptive and communicative power in tension, but it is not a short-term plan for immediate results or a means of circumventing long-term political organization. As the abolitionist, anticolonial, and antiracist movement activists that inspire McKibben knew very well, building a new world required much more than kicking the colonizer out or ending chattel slavery and Jim Crow – colonial liberation, emancipation, and desegregation are enormously important but not the same as freedom, self-determination, and mutuality; and even the former are not outcomes guaranteed by disobedience. In like fashion, real and enforceable commitments to emissions benchmarks would matter a great deal, but cannot fully deliver a world beyond carbon capitalism and fossil fuel oligarchy, nor even a solution to the pressing crises already upon us.
The stubborn fact of time thus rears its head again. And given the political impasses and soft denialism that characterizes much of the response by states and their leaders to climate change, it is not surprising to see some corners of the climate movement look for alternatives to forms of politics that require the luxury of years. This particular orientation to time is as evident in Extinction Rebellion’s embrace of civil resistance and strategic nonviolence as it is in recent calls – from Malm as well as others – for the movement to embrace infrastructure sabotage, property destruction, and other not-necessarily-nonviolent forms of direct action.
Though in principle Extinction Rebellion (XR) draws from the same tradition as McKibben, the emphasis of the organization is squarely on disobedience, viewed as an almost foolproof, even apolitical, method. Referencing the political science research of Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan on the success of mass nonviolence in toppling authoritarian dictators, XR’s website specifies a goal of “mobilizing 3.5% of the population to achieve system change.” This claim is based on Chenoweth’s argument that “no regime of the 20th century managed to stand against an uprising” of that scale. Laying out his proposal for mass disobedience, XR founder Roger Hallam uses this reading of the social science (the “well-established dynamics of nonviolent political struggle” and the plain evidence of the “historical record”) to cut against the despairing proposition that opens his pamphlet: that “we are fucked” and have run out of time. Based on the rule of 3.5%, he argues that a regime would likely suffer “collapse” or “be forced to enact major structural change” after only a couple weeks of mass mobilization (Common Sense for the 21st Century, 1-4). While organizing collective action amidst climate crisis is an act of radical hope for a future we cannot guarantee, the distillation of disobedience and nonviolence to a social scientific method reveals the depth of despair lurking in the background: we no longer have time for politics, only method.
In Pipeline Malm takes XR to task for its unwarranted faith in the efficacy of civil resistance and makes the case for strategic sabotage. As he argues, despite the stunning success of groups like XR in mobilizing enormous numbers of people, it has not so far delivered the needed results. Malm reads the historical record differently: it shows, he argues, not the efficacy of disciplined nonviolent disruption but the power of the “radical flank effect.” Noting that the history of radical, transformative social change from abolition to decolonization was marked by movements that contained both “moderate” (nonviolent, mass-based) and “radical” (violent or not-nonviolent, covert) wings, Malm contends that it was this mix that enabled success: the disruptive power of nonviolence gains its potency through the comparison to its violent alternative, pressuring those in power to make concessions lest the radicals set their property and wealth ablaze.
It is the matter of time that defines and differentiates the climate movement from its predecessors.
Though Malm is careful not to jettison the mass-based politics of social movement mobilization in favour of clandestine sabotage – his is an argument for a diversity of disobedient tactics – the despairing (if understandable) embrace of method over politics is likewise evident. He writes at length, and somewhat wistfully, about a 2007 action in Sweden to let the air out of SUV tires in a wealthy neighbourhood, noting how little coordination and organization such a tactic requires: it can be taken up by anyone, acting by themselves, at any time. Of course, deflating car tires is not blowing up a pipeline, but the promise of all sabotage is one of immediacy: it is an emergency brake on the death-making infrastructure of fossil fuel extraction and delivery, and, in that sense, expresses the dream of a tactic, a method, beyond time-bound politics. As Malm notes, ironically echoing Hallam, it is the matter of time that defines and differentiates the climate movement from its predecessors. They could wait; we cannot: the fossil fuel infrastructure requires immediate and irrevocable disruption if we are to survive.
Thus I must reformulate the question with which I began: in a world on fire, is there time for politics? The conundrum is that there has to be, even if there is not. Disobedience appears episodic and seems to offer the immediacy of those results that ordinary politics routinely fail to deliver. But it is better imagined as a longer-term movement practice, working in tandem and intimately entangled with others – from labour organizing to political campaigning to building alternative institutions and crafting economic policy. Indeed, one of the lessons we might learn from the history of anticolonial and antiracist disobedience is not about whatever reading of the tactical dynamics promise success, but about its necessary and constitutive ties to organization-, institution-, law-, and policy-making. In a world on fire, disobedient activism cannot just function as urgent action to arrest present violence, nor as a method of forcing politicians to make discrete policy concessions. It is always, and necessarily, a constructive act – a matter of constructing a future world whose shape remains uncertain, whose contours and possibilities are built by what we do now.
Erin R. Pineda is Assistant Professor of Government at Smith College. Her work on protest, civil disobedience, and populism has appeared in History of the Present, Contemporary Political Theory, European Journal of Political Theory, as well as Boston Review, and on the London Review of Books blog. Her book, Seeing Like an Activist: Civil Disobedience and the Civil Rights Movement, was published last year by Oxford University Press.