Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone XL Pipeline protest photos by Pax Ahimsa Gethen
Sometimes, the best way to get a picture of an ideology is by looking at where its adherents draw their boundaries.
In that context, Jamie Bartlett’s recent piece in Foreign Policy – “The next wave of extremists will be green” provides some very helpful context in allowing us to understand the dogma of followers of what Anthony Barnett calls “the CBCs” – that is, Clinton, Bush, Blair, Brown, Cameron, Clinton.
Bartlett is a director – and the longest standing staff member – of the centrist think tank Demos, which has had significant power over that corner of the British establishment for more than a decade.
In his piece, he scours the globe in search of evidence for his claim (though he doesn’t claim to be the first to make it) that environmentalists will follow in the footsteps of Al Qaeda, and then Islamic State, as the next great, unpredicted, terrorist threat.
The evidence he presents for this claim consists of, first, repeating – and lending a veneer of liberal authority to – the defamatory and racist claims of a right wing tabloid smear campaign; second, conflating vandalism and violence, as though destroying machines which are killing people is on the same moral plane as owning them; and, finally, one pressure cooker bomb in Brazil once.
Add a deep misunderstanding of both how in particular accelerating environmental disasters are playing out already, and of how political violence tends to work in practice, and you have his article.
Let’s go through this in a bit more detail.
After running through some evidence that the environmental movement across the world is surging after the widely documented post-2009 slump, and that these recruits are often willing to take part in non-violent direct action (something which puts us in a ‘radical’ category, alongside murders like ISIS, in Bartlett’s slightly odd moral universe), he moves on to his first actual suggestion that there might be any real violence:
“The same obstinate determination was visible in the Standing Rock protesters, who tried to prevent the building of the Dakota Access pipeline in the northern United States. Between August 2016 and this February, 761 arrests were made there. Of course that partly reflects police aggression and heavy-handedness, but it also signals protesters’ newfound toughness and refusal to stand down. Authorities have made clear that they’re worried: A recent report from the Department of Homeland Security warned of attacks from eco-terrorists who “believe violence is justified” to the planned Diamond Pipeline, which will run from Oklahoma to Tennessee, and the risk of possible “mass casualties.””
The link in his quote isn’t to the actual report. Rather, he takes us to an article in the right wing American tabloid the Washington Examiner. The actual report from Trump’s Department of Homeland Security is here. What Bartlett tells you it says is flatly untrue.
The words “mass casualties” come from the section of the report about the risk of right wing militia who oppose US “eminent domain” (compulsory purchase) laws, not from the section about what they call “environmental extremists” as Bartlett claims. In that section, it’s true that they assess the risk from environmentalists, but, having assessed that risk, the report says “we do not have information indicating environmental rights extremists are planning to attack or violently disrupt the Diamond pipeline”.
Now, we all make mistakes and I’m sure that this is an honest error in the sense that he didn’t intend to mislead his readers. But it’s also a telling slip. Because you can’t possibly understand the recent pipeline protests in the States without seeing them in their historical context.
These pipelines are being built, often on the land of Native American groups, in order to transport tar sands oil from Canada. This is some of the filthiest fossil fuel on the planet, much of which has been taken in breach of Canada’s treaties with First Nations peoples. According to James Hansen, the former head of NASA’s Goddart institute, if this oil is burnt, it will effectively become impossible to stop dangerous climate change.
The protests against the pipelines have been led by Native Americans and First Nation Canadians – peoples who have lived through genocide in recent generations and who live life on the rough end of American racism. As a researcher for a credible think tank, writing in a serious publication, the fact that Bartlett doesn’t just believe, but exaggerates the smear of a right wing US tabloid against these groups is telling. Specifically, it tells us that he is willing to accept lies at face value if they are told by powerful people about the disempowered as they stand up for themselves, and the future of the planet.
Let’s move on. Because next, Bartlett takes us to the one example he seems to have been able to find of an actually violent incident in recent years: a pressure cooker bomb was detonated outside a shopping mall in Brazillia. While no one was hurt, those responsible do seem to have intended actual violence (rather than vandalism).
Now, clearly setting off pressure cooker bombs is a dangerous thing to do. But it hardly justifies the claim that there is a trend. After all, such small scale violence is worryingly common: in the year to May 2016, 52 bombs went off in Northern Ireland, yet you don’t find many British commentators talking up a descent back to violence there.
And will mounting environmental disaster lead to more of this sort of thing? Well, probably not, no. Because environmental factors are by their nature abstract and impersonal. In fact, climate change is probably already leading to an increase in violence globally. But you can hardly call those committing the violence green extremists.
Droughts in the Middle East, exacerbated by climate change, for example, probably were one of many factors which contributed to the unfolding war in Syria. Does that make ISIS eco-terrorists? Obviously not. Political violence is almost always personal, and motivated by vengeance, while climate change is global and abstract. A thousand Londoners are said to die each year from air pollution, but that doesn’t mean that there’s a spate of bereaved family members roaming the streets killing random drivers. Most don’t even identify air pollution as the cause of their loved one’s death, because that’s the nature of environmental factors.
So, if this isn’t about environmentalists committing actual violence against people, what is he really talking about?
You get a hint here: “books like Deep Green Resistance — a sort of how-to guide for radical environmentalists — urge abandoning ineffective peaceful routes and hint darkly that industrial sabotage is the only avenue left open.”
“That same year, German climate change activists founded Ende Gelände (“Here and No Further”), an alliance specifically devoted to acts of civil disobedience against fossil fuels. In 2015, around 1,500 of these very determined and highly organized protesters temporarily shut down one of Europe’s largest coal mines by climbing into it. Last year, double that number of protesters did the same. And this month Ende Gelände organized an estimated 6,000 protestors into an 11-day effort to halt production in the heart of German coal country.”
And we quickly discover that what Bartlett really means by “extremists” is people who peacefully shut down fossil fuel infrastructure. It’s only a strange sort of ideologue who could consider such life-saving activities as ‘extreme’. The last time in the UK that a group of such protesters were placed before a jury of their peers – after shutting down Kingsnorth coal power station in 2008 – they were found not guilty. Presented with the simple evidence that such activities stop carbon from entering the atmosphere, and so save lives, the jurors refused to convict them of any crime.
It’s here that we get to the nub of it all. An average of four environmental activists were killed each week over the last year, often by murderers hired by corporations or state forces. But Bartlett hasn’t written a screed on how those who killed them are extremists. Much of what he worries about is property damage. And yet he doesn’t seem to consider those doing damage to biodiversity, our air, our water supplies and the property of indigenous people (and many others besides) with their pipelines, mines and power stations to be ‘extremists’. He expresses concern, I’m sure honestly, about climate change and biodiversity loss. But ultimately, the people who he identifies as ‘extremists’ – those he considers outwith the bounds of ideological reasonableness – are not the rich, the powerful and the companies causing this damage, but those organising against it.
And this is why his essay casts light on the broader ideology which pervades much of British centredom. Because while they profess concern about the problems of the world, when push comes to shove, they lend the calm language of liberal respectability to the smear campaigns of those who are profiting from murder across the world.