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The power and limits of radical activism against climate change

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By Alessio Terzi

· 7 min read

"Portrait of Carlyle by Millais damaged by butcher’s cleaver; name given as Anne Hunt. Reopened East Wing at 12 noon to the public. [National] Gallery kept open."

At a time when attacks on works of art by climate activists are commonplace, this headline seems fully contemporary. Yet it dates back to July 17, 1914. Anne Hunt, the author of the attack, was an activist for women's voting rights. A few months earlier, on May 5 and 13, portraits of Henry James and the Duke of Wellington suffered similar treatment at the Royal Academy, while on March 10 it had been the turn of Diego Velázquez's Rokeby Venus.

In other words, it is not the first time that attacks on works of art are being used to send a strong political message. Framing the recent phenomenon in a historical context allows us to assess its pros and cons, and consequently to make a reasoned judgment about the usefulness of civil disobedience in a climate crisis context.

Raising awareness on climate change

Starting with the cause, from gender equality to the urgency of combatting climate change, both deserve respect and utmost attention. Therefore, the goal of civil disobedience, back then and now, is to wake up, through inducing shock, a public that too often is apathetic, distracted or slumbering in everyday life.

Viewed in this way, the mere fact that media outlets have been discussing the shock acts could be interpreted as a success. And the fact these actions are led by young activists makes perfect sense. After all, the latest IPCC report has powerfully illustrated how the world is sleepwalking towards climate catastrophe, and this will affect in particular generations who are currently in their youth. If indeed these acts help permanently re-tune public debates toward such momentous challenges as contrasting climate change, then civil disobedience of this kind should be encouraged by those who care about the environment and our future on this planet. To understand why, one must understand how the green transition will take place. 

The mechanisms of the green transition

As I explain in depth in my recent book Growth for Good, decarbonization will require a complete transformation of production and consumption, transport, agriculture, and even the shapes and materials of our homes. In essence, what we have in front of us is something resembling a Green Industrial Revolution to be fast-tracked in the face of a deadline – 2050 – after which, scientists tell us, catastrophic chain events could be unleashed.

Citizens have a key role to play in this transition. In the first instance, they can change their behaviors often with minimal impact on their own quality of life and a high impact on the environment. Classic examples are using bicycles for short distances in the city, taking the train instead of a short-haul flight, or reducing meat consumption. If these things are not already happening, it is often because we make decisions out of inertia and not with the environment in mind on a daily basis.

Then there is a more systemic consideration. For the most part, zero-emission technologies, such as renewables, already exist to replace fossil fuel energy sources, but they require large upfront investments and generally initially imply higher prices for consumers. Only an environmentally-conscious consumer will see the green option as superior, and will therefore be willing to pay a price premium. However, this initial move by green (more affluent) consumers will lead firms to compete on that terrain, fostering innovation and cost reductions along so-called ‘learning curves’, making the transition affordable and possible for all. This is somewhat what we are experiencing with electric cars, currently seen as top-of-the-line. As EVs gain market shares, they will go through a price reduction that will progressively allow the complete replacement of internal combustion engine cars. 

Finally, at least in democracies, consumers are also citizens, and as such they vote in elections. Citizens who care more about climate issues will put governments in a position to adopt public policies designed to facilitate and accelerate the phenomena described above, both behavioral changes and green innovation. For example, policies may increase pedestrian and bicycle spaces in cities, expand the rail network, or increase taxation on CO2 emissions to further incentivize businesses to reinvent their production processes in a green way. 

The usefulness of civil disobedience

To formulate an assessment of the usefulness of civil disobedience, the key question to ask is: are the shock actions of climate activists working in the direction of the Green Revolution thus described, or not? The answer would perhaps be best left to public opinion and survey experts and may vary from country to country. But I suspect there are limits to what we can expect from civil disobedience today.

First, because a strategy that rests on shock actions requires constantly raising the bar higher and higher. If defacing a Van Gogh was enough the first time to land on the front page of the New York Times, what will be required in the future? The process effectively risks radicalization, as incidentally happened to the Suffragettes a century ago. Cleaver attacks on works of art were followed by damage at the expense of government buildings, post offices, churches, infrastructure, parcel bombs, arson and even assassinations. With this in mind, the success of Andreas Malm's recent book How to Blow Up a Pipeline (just released as a movie as well) should come as no surprise. While a tomato puree against a glass case may perhaps shock and arouse sympathy in a moderate audience, radicalization is generally accompanied by fear, criminalization and repression. Many historians indeed suggest that even the Suffragette movement ended up rowing against its own cause.

Second, one must consider the broader context. The Suffragette movement in England decided to stop its activities with the country's entry into the Great War. In the United States, on the other hand, it decided to continue its disobedience activities, alienating them from more moderate public opinion. One wonders, then, whether activities to disrupt transport infrastructure, such as those we have recently seen on the M25 in London, are not in danger of becoming increasingly unpopular at a time of conflict, energy crisis, inflation and collapse in purchasing power for many. It is perhaps no coincidence that Extinction Rebellion has recently announced that it will abandon its civil disobedience actions in the UK in order to devote itself to broadening its base. 

Lastly, even if disobedience actions continue to be limited to nonviolence, such as defacing buildings or works of art, I suspect they will garner more success and attention from those who are already environmentally conscious, and less from those who are not. If so, their usefulness would be minimal. And the link to the climate cause is so tenuous that it does not immediately suggest how to change one's behavior. "What does Van Gogh have to do with climate?" has been the reflection of many. 

The green transition is a herculean transformation that cannot be implemented by any single actor in society but will require a joint effort. The actions of governments, businesses and citizens will be crucial building blocks for change. Whether or not civil disobedience is of help depends on whether and how it will influence them.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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