Before Ende Gelände (EG) activists go protesting, they sign an Action Consensus. This is a document where protesters agree what they will and won’t do during the protest (“we will lie down on the railway tracks”, “we won’t engage in violence against the police”). In the most recent version of this contract, the organisation declared property damage fair game in their fight against climate change, not only condoning it, but promising legal support for those caught doing it. This is symbolic of a wider trend in climate activism that sees escalation towards violence as the only way forward.
A green RAF
Ende Gelände is one of the few ‘successful’ climate movements in Germany. Since its founding in 2015, EG has organised annual actions against fossil fuel infrastructure. In 2020, over 2000 activists participated in blockades at ChemCoast Park near Brunsbüttel. In 2021, more than 3000 activists blocked coal and gas infrastructure in Rhineland. By infiltrating fossil fuel infrastructure and setting up climate camps on coal mine grounds, they managed to disrupt production and cost these companies millions.
They drew enough attention to their cause to get the German government to agree to the 2038 end date for coal mining. What they have accomplished was achieved by imitating the direct actions and civil disobedience of Germany’s anti-nuclear movements. Yet, according to Berlin-based EG co-founder Tadzio Müller, similar tactics are no longer enough.
“The climate crisis will escalate rapidly, but our political power will continue to dwindle,” he says, anticipating the intensification of climate activism. “A new movement cycle will arise. It will be smaller, more militant and have new action forms, new agents, new stories. It’ll begin with networks that will be created at the margins of organisations. If society doesn’t want to change, you need to impose costs on the society. On everybody, not just on the polluters… Groups like Letzte Generation and Just Stop Oil understand this. Thus the intensity of the crackdown. They are ‘the return of the repressed.”
The RAF was a left-wing extremist organisation, considered terrorists by the West German goverment. It grew out of the discontent the 1960s German youth felt for a fascist state. Its members decided they would do anything they could to tackle racism and imperialism and enhance women’s liberation. They were responsible for bombings and the murder of politicians, business leaders and police officers.
Though some might feel uncomfortable with the reference to an open wound in Germany’s recent history, this kind of language gets the message across: the climate emergency justifies increasingly violent actions. Protest and political movement expert at Freie Universität, Dr. Simon Tuene, points out that whilst a lot of movements have recognised the need for escalation, most aren’t sure how to go about it. “The logic of numbers hasn’t worked,” he says referring to the fact that despite Friday for Future bringing tens of thousands of people on the streets of Berlin and millions across the world, little action appears to have been taken in response. The search is on for more impactful means.
Climate justice won’t be done unless we force our governments to do it. And the only way to do that is crime.
“Nobody in the climate justice movement is propagating violence against the police or against those who are responsible for the climate crisis,” Tuene explains. “But the lack of action on the side of the government, the gap between what is being done and what needs to be done is getting more and more unbearable for people who see the climate crisis coming. It’s likely that individuals or collectives will choose more drastic means, even though these kinds of means are not even thinkable right now.”
A shift from non-violence
The mood is shifting among other climate justice groups, too. Extinction Rebellion (XR) spokesperson Manon Gerhardt thinks the line of what is acceptable and what is not is already moving. “We shifted the goal a bit. Civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action still is the strategy, but we are trying to address the players directly, rather than only taking to the streets,” she explains. “We’re no longer counting on gaining the support of a huge part of society.”
Author Andreas Malm has played a role in the movement away from strict non-violence. His 2021 book How to Blow Up a Pipeline is hugely popular, especially among younger members of the climate justice movement, and Luisa Neubauer has even joked about the idea. Whilst the book contains no practical sabotage advice, it does make the case for more direct action that blurs the lines of legality. According to Malm, the accepted wisdom that a social movement of sufficient size will see its political will manifest is completely false. What sociologists call the “law of large numbers” only explains part of any group’s success. The rest is explained by the ‘criminals’ among them – as shown by the historical example of the Suffragettes.
After decades of trying to talk the ruling class into giving women the vote, the Women’s Social and Political Union was founded in London in 1903 with the motto: ‘Deeds not words’. By 1912, as the movement grew, hundreds of women took to the streets, smashing storefront windows across the city to demand change. Their leader Emmeline Pankhurst explained: “we had to discredit the Government and Parliament in the eyes of the world; we had to spoil English sports, hurt businesses, destroy valuable property, demoralise the world of society, shame the churches, upset the whole orderly conduct of life.” The strategy proved successful: in 1928, women in the UK were granted the right to vote.
The beginning of something explosive
Back in Berlin, Charlotte* left XR and joined EG because she felt the former were ineffective and more drastic action was needed. She said that whilst XR is strictly non-violent, there are fringe individuals in both groups who are already carrying out more extreme actions, like deflating the tyres of SUVs in Berlin’s wealthier suburbs. She wouldn’t confirm or deny having taken part herself, but sees this form of protest as warranted. “Blockading the street to punish individual car owners is illogical,” she says, speaking of her time at XR. “They aren’t responsible [for climate change]. But by interfering with infrastructure… you can shut down coal mines and cost [fossil fuel companies] millions if you halt production.”
This is just the beginning. Civil disobedience just hasn’t worked. And while we desperately try – and fail – to make ourselves heard by painting rivers green and disrupting high-level meetings by setting off alarms in the buildings, the ecological foundations of our world are crumbling. The climate emergency keeps worsening around us, disproportionately affecting those who don’t have the means to address it. Climate justice won’t be done unless we force our governments to do it. And the only way to do that is crime.
If we go out to Grunewald and let the air out of the tires on every SUV, the super polluters will have to stop driving them. If we trespass on private airports and lay on the runways, that might just be a way to get some of the right people to finally listen. If we go out to the Rhineland or Lusatia and sabotage fossil fuel infrastructure, they will eventually have to stop digging and drilling. If leaders are put in a position where they can no longer ignore the angry mob and see the gore-slicked pitchforks illuminated by torchlight from where they sleep, perhaps they will reduce their own emissions and make laws that protect the planet instead of their wallets. The ruling class aren’t going to be convinced by talk, only by action.
*Name has been changed.