The trajectory of civil resistance in climate breakdown*
“What is it going to take?”
It’s the question I whisper as I do the dishes. It’s the question that ticks along in my mind with the indicator at traffic lights. It’s the question that I settle into my pillow with at night.
Listen to Violet Coco reading her article for Green Agenda, approximately 34 minutes.
“What’s it going to take?”
This is the question pounding in the mind of everyone who comprehends the current trajectory of our planet.
We ask this question because we know how much we personally would give to avert climate collapse.
I can not think of a greater tragedy in existence than to allow, in any capacity, the greed of a few to destroy all life on earth. I would give everything to avert climate collapse.
This is what those of us who see the reality of our situation are doing. We surrender everything – as the late and great activist Zoe Hulme-Peake said, “it takes all of us, it takes it all from us.”
But with every report of a flood, a fire, a famine, a new border wall, a new oilfield, and with every accompanying rush of rage and grief, we hear the silence of our leaders, and the grinding machinery of business as usual. We fear that our everything will not be enough.
Looking back, moving forward
I’ve been engaging in direct action for climate justice full-time for the last five years. In that time we’ve seen the explosion of multiple global mass civil disobedience movements, from School Strike for Climate to Extinction Rebellion and its offshoots. The tradition of non-violent direct action to protect forests and shut down destructive operations has remained strong, and acts of property destruction and sabotage have become more common. I have engaged in all of these spheres of action.
As the crisis escalates, so do attacks on people like me who are sounding the alarm, as governments collude with their corporate masters to erode our hard-won democratic rights. Peaceful protestors are labelled terrorists and given hefty jail sentences, like the 15-month sentence I received for disrupting a single lane of traffic for 25 minutes. The climate movement around the world is facing difficult questions – questions about communication, strategy and tactics, about escalation and repression, about organising and collaboration, and ultimately about our political system as a whole.
I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I can give some reflections on the five years that I’ve been living them.
What is this, some kind of joke?
After the mega fires of 2018-2019, I watched a comedy duo in Bega set a whole room laughing as they described their climate apocalypse plan of killing their neighbour for the last can of beans. I was struck by the irony that the climate movement frets over whether property destruction is an appropriate tactic, while also laughing about our seemingly inevitable trajectory towards starvation-driven murder.
I knew they weren’t exaggerating, even if they didn’t realise that. If you and your family were starving, and there was a way to make sure you all survived, I am sure you would lie, cheat, steal, smash and burn anything in the way of keeping yourself and the ones you love from slipping into a painful death of starvation – if the fires and floods don’t get you and yours first.
Understanding this – really understanding it and feeling deeply what it means – means being regularly confronted with moments of deep confusion and frustration. How is it that these people – a room of well-informed, well-intentioned lefties – were unable to draw the connection between what they know about our future with what that means for our present.
What is it going to take?
What’s in a word?
A couple of years later, while I was sitting in Silverwater prison after blocking the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the name of climate justice, I made a phone call to my media team asking them to contact Emeritus Professor Will Steffen, whom I had met with previously, to help me amend a quote he had given me.
We had met at a café in Canberra shortly before we famously burnt a pram outside Parliament House.
Violet CoCo sits glued to the forecourt of Parliament house next to a burning pram on 10 August 2021. Image supplied.
We were contemplating making the tactical move from mild disruption of roads, to destruction of property. Will had given us an hour of his time to explain the threat, so we could be certain we had our information on good authority and could show our response was appropriate.
He told us in no uncertain terms that on our current trajectory we face a “precipitous drop in human population” and “hell on earth”.
While sitting in prison a year later, having done my best to platform these words by splashing paint, setting things on fire and blockading the Harbour Bridge, I suddenly became worried that “precipitous” was not speaking to enough people, so I asked if we could change it to “rapid.”
It seems surreal that such a minor point can have such gravity, but having witnessed apathetic and cynical responses time and time again, these things feel like life and death questions – how do we communicate to the public that billions of lives will be lost if we keep burning fossil fuels, allowing our biodiversity to perish through land clearing, and the polluting of water? Could an overly academic word be the difference between 200 and 200,000 people on the streets? Maybe I should have asked if the expert opinion could be “We are all going to die!!”.
We are using more resources than the world has to offer. We are chewing up the life of our planet and spitting it out in fidget spinners and billionaires flying around the world. Our whole system is based on the idea that we have complete domination over nature. This egotistical mindset could kill us all. It is not until we are humbled by our position in nature, as a part of, and responsible for, the health of the rest of the living world that we will be able to save ourselves.
Diagram: ‘Ego-Eco’-Humankind is part of the ecosystem, not apart from or above it. Diagram by S. Lehmann, 2010. Source
The full quote from Professor Steffen was this:
“Massive floods, fires and heatwaves are sending us a clear message. On our present trajectory, we risk heading into a collapse of our globalised civilisation and a precipitous [rapid!] drop in human population — put simply, hell on earth. But we can avoid this disastrous future if we change the way we think, live our lives and interact with the rest of the living world. This means listening to and respecting the wisdom of indigenous cultures and moving away from rampant consumerism.”
What is strategic? There are two arms of how to think about averting climate collapse, one is the practical levers that need to be pulled to avert breakdown. The other is gaining the social and political will to organise society into doing them.
One of the most interesting things about joining the fight to protect the planet is the pressure to suddenly understand natural sciences, social sciences, political sciences and historical examples of change. With a background in theatre and philosophy, suffice to say that I am not a scientist.
However, I’ve realised that there is no carbon budget, every tree is sacred in a climate emergency and we are past the point where just zeroing out emissions will be enough. We need to engage in drawdown and repair of ecosystems if we have a chance of surviving the latent warming and destruction that is already locked into the system.
There is no time left
We had decades of warnings, negotiation and broken promises. We are now in our final hour. As Prof Hans Shellenhuber says “Climate change is now reaching the endgame, where very soon humanity must choose between taking unprecedented action, or accept that it has been left too late and bear the consequences” (p. 3). That was in 2018.
We have a huge responsibility as this continent is the third largest exporter of carbon emissions in the world.
World black and brown coal reserves, 2019. Graph prepared by Geoscience Australia
Outrageously, despite all the warnings there are 116 new fossil fuel projects currently on Federal Government’s annual Resource & Energy Major Project list.
There have been decades of warnings, of negotiations, of lobbying (on both sides with a considerable difference in resource capacity), of promises and broken promises. Andreas Malm notes that more carbon stocks have been released since the first COP where the United Nations met to address global warming, than in the 75 years before it (p. 7).
So we are back where we started, “What is it going to take?”
I know your job seems important right now, I know your ‘clean record’ so you can still fly overseas seems important now (not that it actually stops anyone from travelling, so far), I know that police are scary, the state is scary. I know, I have been arrested 33 times now, and let me tell you, it sucks. First Nations people have been telling us about the atrocities of the state’s “justice” system since colonisation. I will share why I think we should be doing it anyway.
How civil resistance creates political will
Historically, civil resistance has created extraordinary breakthroughs in social, political and economic issues. When freedom, resources or power is hoarded, and asking nicely hasn’t worked, ‘the people’ have risen up as a collective, to demand better. This is an important part of democracy. It is a phenomenon that occurs when the structures of co-operation in society have failed so much, and are causing so much suffering, that people make extraordinary personal sacrifices, and are supported by peers to do so, in order to highlight an issue that needs to change.
Thanks to these people, we have made great leaps and bounds (although there is still much work to do) with issues like workers rights; thank you for the eight hour working day, women’s liberation; thank you for the vote, queer rights; thank you for marriage equality; refugee justice; thank you for supporting freedom and safety, First Nations’ justice; thank you for supporting justice and Country.
Civil resistance can not be ignored. It is a disruption of ‘business as usual’. Petitions and lobbying can be ignored, but civil resistance, when done properly, can not be ignored.
Civil resistance has a purpose, it is to change the trajectory of society to be more just. It pulls on certain leverages to achieve this.
Leverages like, drawing attention to an issue that the political class want to keep quiet. Or can target economic leverage; like costing money to power structures. This can trigger them to seek negotiation where previously they have ignored the issue. Another leverage is engaging public sympathy for the activists themselves, through facing repression.
In the campaign to save the Franklin River, the organising activists held a survey of what motivated people to come and protect that ecosystem. The number one motivating factor for people turning up was seeing other people get arrested by police.
We motivate each other by demonstrating the appropriate response, which takes courage.
Civil Resistance is broadly supported when it is non-violent, in both a strategic and moral framework. Briefly, engaging in violence, including property damage, causes an escalation of political and therefore police violence. The state typically has more tools and capacity to engage in a violent fight, and therefore it is not strategic to engage might vs. might.
That is not to say that violence is not an important strategic player in civil resistance. Non-violent resistance exposes the violence inherent in the system. Grass roots organisers weaponise the state’s violence against itself, with non violence, to achieve sympathy and outrage – the backfire effect.
While broad support of civil resistance goes to the non-violent parts of the movement, there are great examples of a ‘radical flank’ working successfully within the ecosystem of a movement. In the civil rights movement there were armed protectors of the community. Some wings of the suffragettes blew up empty buildings, threw rocks through windows and slashed paintings.
A local example of this was when our team in Canberra started to throw real paint around The Department for Environment, people were outraged. The movement was largely challenged by the property damage, saying, “We agree with the cause, but we don’t like the methods.”
Image by Keegan Carroll from Canberra Times.
Three Extinction Rebellion members were charged with defacing public property at the Department of Agriculture. Two were sentenced while one had his charge dismissed.
Yet there were also some who said that it felt like the appropriate response to the damage being done to the planet. This opened a conversation about proportionate damage being done to the planet. Difficult conversations, but necessary ones. If parts of the movement are so concerned and outraged about the damage of a little bit of paint, you better be literally up in arms about the destruction of our livable planet.
These types of actions often engage the public’s acceptable response to an issue. They open up a debate on the seriousness of an issue vs the action taken, also known as the appropriate response.
When I burnt the pram, destroying the tiles under the pram with melted plastic, people felt it was justified because of the message – you are killing our children’s future.
Note: Sometimes groups accept that actions will be largely unpopular at the time, but still be effective at platforming the message, or deemed a necessary intervention to prevent a greater injustice. Being liked is not the same as being effective as an activist, we are not trying to get elected, we are trying to engage a point.
Disruption to Destruction
In our final hour, where all else has failed, is there a strategic way to physically stop the death machine? Or, are we relying on them agreeing with us and shutting themselves down?
In the dark cells of Canberra police station, my friend and I were playing charades through the glass windows of our enclosures.
She was miming, I was guessing.
It’s a book…
First word “How”
… then she is making explosive gestures.
I excitedly, without thinking about where I was, yelled out the book title my comrade was alluding to – “How to Blow up a Pipeline!!!” – I enthusiastically called from my cell.
When I realised what she had tricked me into screaming out, while under police surveillance, I could not help but laugh and appreciate her audacity.
Andreas Malm’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline, published by Verso in January 2021.
The obtusely vibrant orange book by Andreas Malm, which does not include instructions on how to blow up a pipeline, instead, explores the philosophy of property destruction in the context of non violent direct action.
It is very persuasive.
The book quotes R.H Lossin, one of the finest contemporary scholars in the field, “Sabotage is a sort of prefigurative, if temporary, seizure of property. It is – in reference to the climate emergency – both a logical, justifiable and effective form of resistance and a direct affront to the sanctity of capitalist ownership.” (p. 68).
Ultimately, we need to shift the appropriate response to the omnicide of our planet from polite dissent, to unignorable and effective action.
We need a calm and focused panic.
That’s what it feels like to ask “What is it going to take?”
Everyday, constantly looking for the most impactful thing to work with people on.
It seems so easy, no chainsaws, way less trees cut down.
No mining equipment, no mines.
We all want a mass movement to shut the system down, and achieve change. We are working very hard to mobilise as many people as possible. Unfortunately, mass movements are hard to engage, and take a lot of resources. In between waves of mass momentum, small and direct groups can get a lot done.
The challenge when engaging in sabotage, is that reactions can be very aggressive. The repressive and aggressive backlash from it can collapse a campaign’s momentum. For example, the loggers of our beautiful and sacred forests are capable of incredible acts of violence in retaliation for their tonka toys being touched, meaning those in forestry campaigns often steer away from damage, for how it can collapse a functional blockade.
Another prominent example of sabotage is Jessica Reznicek, who did in fact sabotage a pipeline, then openly took responsibility for it. She is now serving eight years in prison.
Jessica’s confession was a powerful and inspiring act that has moved many around the world, including myself, to be brave enough to face prison. However, some have argued to me that if all the key organisers put themself in prison for years, then it would leave the movement very shy of competent people in the very short time we have left to do something.
On July 24, 2017 Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya claimed responsibility for sabotage and arson against the Dakota Access Pipeline. They began dismantling a sign outside the Iowa Utilities Board, and were arrested. Image from Ecowatch, 2019.
Also, how many times could Jessica have stopped that pipeline in the six years she has since served? Conversely, how many people have taken action because they have been inspired by her bravery. *raises hand*
It is of no doubt that mass participation in disruption is needed to shift this system – thousands of people on the streets. I propose that we also need militant teams who are willing to destroy the death machine. Teams that have a degree of separation from the mass participation organisers, but supported within the movement – keeping the mass organisers untainted. This protects mass organisers, whom often have to be publicly accountable, from the dissent and bad optics that sabotage has from the broader public, and the legal consequences. Unless it’s symbolic damage, like the burning pram or spray paint.
The important thing is that we function as an ecosystem of effective tactics.
It means nothing unless we are doing things together. Relationship building and working together are the most important things. The people and organisations around us now, these are the ones we are going through this with. I’ll admit, sometimes I meet people, and tactics, that just rub me the wrong way. However, I recognise that now is the time and if anyone is working on this stuff, then they have a seat at my dinner table and a serve of whatever I have to share. They are kin and deserve my respect. We need an ecosystem of tactics and I remain humbled by the fact that nothing anyone is doing has worked… because emissions continue to rise.
Aric McBay’s brilliant Full Spectrum Resistance (2019) explores the tension between small radical groups and larger parts of the movement. It puts forward the idea of the ratchet as an analogy of how “smaller militant organisations push progress forward” while “larger moderate ones hold and consolidate gains.”
“It is unfortunate that some resistors do not grasp that. I have written about the myopia of liberals who don’t understand the key role of militants. But there are plenty of militants who fail to grasp the important role that moderate organisations can play in radical change” (p. 191).
This was evident in my case for the Harbour Bridge. The new anti-protest laws were rushed through parliament, hardly anyone knew it had happened. I blocked the bridge a week or so later, and got put in prison. This stirs an outrage and brings attention to the concerning laws, giving more momentum for larger organisations, like Unions and Human Rights Watch to express concern at the anti-protest laws, and challenge them with the larger resources at their disposal.
Larger parts of the movement, especially those working on consensus, have slower decision making capacity. Smaller autonomous groups can form out of these larger groups for rapid response under different more radical banners.
A healthy movement consists of small decentralised radical groups and key organisers engaging mass participation co-ordination
So yes, everyone’s job is valid, and thank you for all the work you are doing, no matter who you are. However, there was recently a study released by the Stanford Social Innovation Review, where the case is made that protest movements are more effective than the best charities (NGOs). They observe that for the amount of money protest movements function off, they show a lot more results. So, protest movements are a good investment for the philanthropist who doesn’t want civilisation to collapse.
I think of my job in the movement to be a node in the mycelium. I try to connect, and build relationships with as many people working on this stuff as possible. I call myself a cross pollinator as I build relationships with Disrupt Burrup Hub, in Perth, who are fighting the largest gas expansion project on the continent, while also working with XR Sydney on a zombie march at Town Hall. I speak at The Greens events, in cinemas, in backyards. I try to hold hands with people across as much of the spectrum of resistance as I can. I invite you to this vision, of one big diverse movement, doing as much as we can.
We are the ones we have been waiting for.
Be healers – because this work is hard.
We must learn to work together.
If their greatest weapon is to keep us apart.
Our greatest strength is to stay connected.
Violet CoCo Spray paints Perth police station with the Woodside logo after heavy handed police raid the homes of activists. 3 May 2023. Image supplied, Disrupt Burrup Hub.
The police have been taking on a robo-cop-esque mentality with some punitive behaviour, they call strategic incapacitation. I thought it was the court’s job to deliver punishment, however, the police use their powers to enact their own justice. One way they do this is with bail conditions, like house arrest, or non-association conditions, another way is with actual violence, sound cannons and chemical warfare (pepper spray).
Being on the frontline is tough. The police use intimidation to make us fear using our voice, or talking to our community. Fear is a powerful weapon and it leaves lasting scars. In non-violent direct action training we have a saying, “The action isn’t over till the last fine is paid.” But maybe it should say “Till the last wound is healed.”
The political system is working hard to clamp down on any activism. Laws are changing around the country in response to the rising determination of protesters. We win when we have the strength and courage to keep taking meaningful action together. They win when we fear sitting in our seat of power, or are fighting amongst ourselves. Whatever you do, don’t fight each other in the public domain. Have the respect to have direct conversations and build relationships within the movement.
Remember, repression is activating. If we can demonstrate the injustice of the repression, it mobilises more people. We just need to summon the courage to face it, and we don’t do it alone.
Reform vs Revolution
If there is one thing a functioning government should be ticking off its list of accomplishments it is – not kill everyone. We can argue till the cows come home (go vegan.) how our government should be keeping us alive. But essentially every one of the citizens should be in agreement that a good government should not collapse civilisation. Especially not with this much notice and research about how not to do that.
After delivering a talk at Swinburne University on the climate crisis and activism called, “Heading for Extinction and What to do About it.” A lecturer came up to me and said, “The most frustrating thing is that we have all the solutions we need to heal the planet, we just are not implementing them.”
This government is lying and withholding information on the risk of climate breakdown. The Office of National Intelligence (ONI) released a report for the Labour Government on how the climate crisis will fuel national security threats. They refuse to release the report and its findings.
How can people make informed decisions on how (and who) they want to govern the country without all the information? What right does a government have to hide the risks from us? They know the risks though, they have the brief, and yet they are still approving logging, coal and gas projects like Woodside.
That makes them murderers. This two party system has failed us. It has become a pantomime of theatrics while this land is pillaged for its resources, regardless of the safety of the people.
We need something new.
Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life
Whatever the answers may be, I’m still certain that only people power can save us. Governments and elites have proven time and again that they’d rather murder us all than accept the truth of this crisis – they will not change until we stand up and make them.
What is it going to take? All of us, and everything, courage and commitment. It will take unignorable and effective action from small autonomous teams to mass mobilisation – all working together in a calm and focused panic. It will take strategic damage, and NGOs as one big ecosystem. It will take being healers of each other, and connectors too.
It will also give. It will give purpose, and hope. It will give you a community of the bravest of hearts. The best kind of people, those willing to set aside comfort and luxury, to fight for life.
Malm, Andreas, (2021), How to Blow Up A Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World On Fire. Verso Books.
McBay, Aric, (2019), Full Spectrum Resistance: Building Movements and Fighting to Win. Seven Stories Press.
Gillham, Patrick F. (2011), “Securitizing America: Strategic Incapacitation and the Policing of Protest Since the 11 September 2001 Terrorist Attacks.” Sociology Compass 5(7):633-652.
Violet CoCo is an artist, musician, aunty and climate activist. She was the first person sentenced under controversial new anti-protest laws in NSW, receiving a sentence of 18 months in prison for blocking the harbour bridge under the banner Fireproof Australia, a campaign supporting firefighters. Her sentence was dropped on appeal. She feels this repression should not waver our commitment to defend our planet. Violet has been arrested 33 times, and imprisoned four times, including famously for burning a pram outside Parliament House on the same day the IPCC declared a Code Red for Humanity due to climate breakdown. Violet Coco describes herself as a conscientious objector to the murder of our planet. She has been a part of organising major disruptive festivals of civil disobedience with Extinction Rebellion, supported First Nations and the decolonization of so called ‘Australia’, while also advocating for world peace, justice for women, refugees, and queer communities. If you would like to support Violet’s climate activism, you can do so here.
*Violet CoCo’s writing was supported by Mark Conroy.