By Liam McLoughlin 28/3/14
For the last two decades global leaders have held an annual chin wag to reduce carbon emissions. The result? A 58% increase in global emissions since 1990. Although politicians have defended their efforts by saying “oh, so you actually want us to DEcrease emissions”, it is clear that without immense social movement pressure we will continue to witness the most tragic game of charades since this group attempted Hindi film Chain Kulii Ki Main Kulii :
What is to be Done?
Our time to peak and rapidly decrease emissions is nearly up. Optimistic scientists give us two to six years. Beyond that we may as well join a cult and pray for Christ's return.
For those of us quite keen on sustaining viable human societies, we could do worse than look to the strategy of the civil rights movement.
In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jnr explained: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”
Although denounced as an extremist for his advocacy of civil disobedience, King brilliantly appropriated the term and coined “creative extremism”:
Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you"...And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal ". So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
Climate change is an extreme threat causing extreme injustice. It desperately requires an extreme response. In the spirit of creative extremism, let’s force our agents of capital, world leaders, into a crisis-ridden situation in which they are forced to meet our demands for climate justice.
A Short History of Creative Protest
The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.
Toni Cade Bambara
Creative extremism means using innovative and confrontational modes of protest such as the sit-ins, freedom rides and bus boycotts of the civil rights movement. It also recognises the role of artists as a potent force in any struggle for social and environmental justice. As Bertold Brecht once said “Art is not a mirror to be held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” The artistic imagination helps movements organise original and inspirational forms of protest. Two stunning examples of this occurred during the apartheid regime in South Africa;
and the singing revolution in Estonia:
Creative extremism has flowered in recent years, taking a number of ingenious forms.
In 1989, low-income tenants at a public housing project in Rhode Island setup a daycare centre replete with kids, cribs, toys and diaper changing tables within the office of the local Housing and Development Director (HUD). The press coverage forced the HUD to oblige the protestors’ demand for a daycare centre within the housing project.
In the mid 1990s the Washington DC creative direct action campaign “Justice for Janitors” achieved significant wage hikes and benefits. Actions included blocking major bridges and roads as well as occupying the City Council Chambers and office of the Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich.
At a similar time the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army filled their pockets at protests with strange junk so police stop-and-searches took hours of paperwork to complete, while Reclaim the Streets blended party and protest with spectacular street carnivals which at times closed major freeways. Critical Mass is another fine example, prefiguring a healthy, green transport system by overrunning city streets with large groups of cyclists.
These forms of creative extremism have intensified following the global financial crisis.
The Occupy movement is the most famous example, with the 99% “Bat Signal” perhaps being the most poetic visual symbol of the movement.
In addition, creative extremists have waged an anti-austerity campaign in Spain over the past two years. Actions have ranged from large demonstrations, to surrounding Congress, to free “citizen classrooms” held outdoors at universities, to a series of flamenco flashmobs inside banks protesting current economic policies, to this moving performance inside Madrid’s Office of Unemployment after new unemployment figures revealed 6 million people were out of work:
Climate Change and the Many Tools of the Creative Extremist
Climate change campaigners have likewise used a variety of creative extremist tactics which range from the benign to the outright confrontational. In 2009, hundreds of Australian climate activists, students of Emma Goldman’s phrase “If I can’t dance, I don’t want your revolution”, demanded “no new coal, renewable energy now”:
Sadly these activists failed to read Moliere who said “All the ills of mankind...have arisen merely from a lack of skill at dancing”. Familiar with the greater revolutionary potential of dancing in a circle, Aboriginal peoples of Canada through the protest movement Idle No More did this:
In this globally distributed action, politics, art and the internet combined to deliver a series of global messages on climate change:
While such protests attract headlines, the hoax is more directly threatening to power.
In December 2008 student Tim DeChristopher lodged over a dozen bids at an auction for oil and gas leases for drilling near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks in Utah. This action delayed the sales until they were ultimately cancelled by a federal judge, thus saving many acres of Utah wilderness from destruction.
Jonathan Moylan faces up to 10 years in prison for his fake ANZ press release announcing the withdrawal of $1.2 billion in financing for a new mining project of Whitehaven Coal, which sent that company’s stocks into a temporary freefall.
Creative extremism tends not only to combine an artistic temperament with a political purpose, but the best examples often do so with humour.
Oscar Wilde once said “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you”, and the Yes Men are a good example of this philosophy. For many years they have posed as company executives to satirise the absurd and often tragic actions of some of the world’s largest corporations.
Once acting as ExxonMobil representatives, the Yes Men famously distributed “climate change victim candles” to an audience full of oil and gas executives, touting the new miracle biofuel “vivoleum”, made from human flesh.
Finally, occupation and civil disobedience are powerful weapons in any struggle for justice.
In July 2009 an 18 day occupation of a wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight by workers threatened with layoffs placed enormous media and public pressure on the climate change secretary about how the UK could possibly meet its renewable energy targets.
In 2011, in opposition to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline transporting crude oil from the tar sands of Canada to refineries in Texas, 1252 people were arrested in protests outside the White House and hundreds were arrested for trespassing on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Obama subsequently rejected this incarnation of the pipeline proposal.
Last year, faced with renewed attempts to proceed with the pipeline, 22 Obama campaign donors and staff were arrested obstructing the State Department’s offices in downtown Chicago, and 48 people were arrested tying themselves to the gates of the White House. Four days after this White House action, protestors held the largest climate rally in US history:
These actions shine a light down the path we must travel, with creativity, courage, intelligence and good humour, if we are to win this struggle for climate justice.
This is the third article in a four part series on the politics of climate change. Episode IV tracks the rising climate justice movement and the countdown to Paris, 2015.: