What does climate activism look like to you? Do you imagine a tree-hugging hippie or a millennial with a year's worth of trash in one jar? Do you think of the blockades on the main roads of DC that happen at least once a month? These acts are the front of the climate movement, and for good reason. The vast majority of youth agree with the urgency to act on the climate crisis, and they agree with these methods. But though the environmental organizing sphere has a fair share of symbolic protests, you’ll find that the core of the climate movement isn’t at all as peaceful and nonviolent as portrayed.
By now, every young person in America likely knows of the climate crisis, if not in-depth, at least the bare minimum of the globe getting warmer and that it’s generally considered a problem. The recent 2022 IPCC report warned that if we keep going at our current pace, we will exceed 3°C of global warming by 2030, a state of irreversible climate disaster. You’ve likely heard of the School Strikes for Climate or the mass protests put on at the White House, which the media says are protesting climate change, but there are dozens of other organizations in the DMV alone organizing to end climate change. I work for one of those organizations–Sunrise Movement’s DC chapter. For nearly a year, I’ve planned, attended, and led these protests and actions, along with the rest of the climate organizing community. However, climate organizing goes far beyond symbolic protests with vague demands. We know that these methods won’t magically somehow “end” climate change, and we definitely know that personal consumption is not going to bring about the end of the climate crisis, as, truly, corporations and oil companies are the root of the problem.
No, the core of the climate movement is harsh disruption: disruption of what allows the destruction of our planet to continue, disruption of the operations of a system built to slowly degrade our natural resources and environment. And the reason disruption is not the face of our community right now is because it’s not respectable.
The methods that Indigenous people and other people of color have been using for years are defined as direct action. Instead of just asking nicely for the climate emergency to end, direct action goes directly to the core of what’s causing the climate crisis and lack of inaction–acts such as chaining yourself to pipeline construction materials to prevent them from being built, blockading a coal plant to stop operations, and preventing lobbyists and oil execs from leaving their homes to go to work and continue their destruction of the climate. These actions are often seen as extreme or “too far,” but with the current state of our world, what other choice do we have? Asking nicely and negotiating kindly hasn’t gotten us further in the past few years. And direct action works. The operations of one pipeline being slowed, even just for one day, can stop 5,000 metric tons of emissions. To achieve that level of emission prevention in that same time frame, you’d have to completely eliminate the carbon footprint of 114,000 people in America, an almost impossible feat in a society that relies on its people relying on fossil fuels.
So why are symbolic protests and quiet sit-ins currently the face of the climate movement, as opposed to our direct and effective efforts? At the end of the day, these pacifist actions are more socially acceptable because they don’t affect anything, unless under the rare circumstance that politicians agree with our demands. Direct action is considered violent, harsh, and unnecessary, because it actually steps in to put a stop to the climate crisis, and the system that enables and profits off of climate catastrophe is threatened by it. This isn’t to say that peaceful, indirect protests are useless and should be retired entirely–they have helped garner mass attention and support for the climate movement. But we need to do something further with that momentum, and truly step into the cause and stop the source of the problem. To do that, we’ll need to shake the need of being seen as respectable and truly dive into effective and, yes, sometimes violent tactics. If you truly are moved by climate change, drop the cardboard signs and join your local organizing group on the frontlines.
For further information on environmental direct action and priority destruction, I encourage you to read “How To Blow Up A Pipeline” (although probably better titled “Why To Blow Up A Pipeline,” as there are no actual instructions) by Andreas Malm.
For those looking to get involved, ShutDown DC, Sunrise Movement DC, The Palm Collective, and many, many more organizations are based in DC and fight the climate crisis through direct action. As you do more research into the climate organizing world, you will learn of more ways to take action :)
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