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The Moral Case for Composting
Time to retire that fossil fuel infrastructure
Last week, I interviewed earth scientist Rose Abramoff about the case for action in the face of ecological breakdown. Rose is one of the first climate scientists in the USA to be fired for protesting against climate breakdown and inadequate government and industry response. We had a fascinating conversation, which quickly led to exploring the nuance of what to do when nonviolent civil disobedience fails. As states up the ante against climate protesters around the world, as new oil and gas licences are granted to the fossil fuel industry, and as we break temperature records in both the air and our oceans every year, is there an ethical case for violent action?
In his well-known book, How To Blow Up A Pipeline, political theorist Andreas Malm argues that no progressive movement has succeeded on nonviolence alone. Instead, typically, the order of events is that when the moderate, nonviolent flank is ignored by the systems of power, a radical flank emerges to force the conversation—making reference to, amongst others, the civil rights movement in the United States and the Suffragettes movement in the UK. This radical flank makes the nonviolent movement seem less outrageous and more palatable; Martin Luther King Jr is invited to the table for discussion because of the actions of Malcolm X.
This text has been met with both zeal and wariness within the climate movement. Some think only a radical flank can move the needle, others do not believe a better world can be built using violent tactics, that that which emerges would fall prey to the same ideological hierarchies causing damage in today’s world. Indeed, this needs to be interrogated: Would using violent tactics cause additional trauma? Can goodness ever emerge from trauma? How do we heal from trauma?
Certainly, this makes it imperative to consider what comes next before rushing to take violent action; having a hospice plan for destruction and another for generation is critical, as is containing violence to specific actions against property and working consistently against it spilling out into chaos. Indeed, Malm argues in his book that, for the radical flank to be effective, the moderate flank would have to disavow such action entirely and name it to be wrong. That such action is undertaken by a small and anonymous group is vital to such ideological containment.
But is it right to use violence at all? Rose and I discuss this at length, often using Malm’s term: sabotage. The violence of such actions are not taken against people—any such action is abhorrent—but against property. Fossil fuel infrastructure, in particular. This begs the question: Why do we think of action against property to be violent at all? What is morally repugnant about breaking the window of a bank or blowing up a pipeline, especially given such property belongs to a corporation, whose only personhood lies within the legal system? Why are citizens forced to use their bodies as political tools and put them in the face of danger—slow marching down the street where they face attacks by fellow citizens, or being manhandled by police as they stage sit-ins—when, instead, they could be using tools to sabotage or destroy property which endangers nobody?
It could be the confluence of capitalist ideology: In a consumer culture, I am that which I buy and therefore any attack on property is equivalent to an attack on self. This, coupled with the fact that the only thing with which citizens have to barter on the labour market is their body (with perhaps a sprinkling of mind), means both the only way with which we engage with structures of capital and social capital are embodied. I move through the world not as a citizen, but as a body; my body is the site where I meet the market, the state and my community. My body, then, is the only tool at my disposal to take action.
This, of course, isn’t fundamentally true, yet the politicised body becomes a political tool, much as art becomes commodified in a capitalist regime. Yet, perhaps art can act as a lubricant between systems of power and the person taking action, whereas the body feels the full force of friction when disobeying. So why should our bodies be put on the line when, instead, we could take infrastructure offline?
Rose makes a fascinating comment during our discussion, saying destruction, as it would be understood, happens all the time and everywhere. We raze forests to make room for new developments; we drill the ocean floor for oil; we till soil to grow crops. The world is a merry collection of cycles of birth, stasis and decay, with both industry and government participating in destruction sometimes for profit, and sometimes for generation. As long as there is a plan for generation, a prefiguration for what will be made in the face of destruction, is it so immoral?
This is the case for composting the fossil fuel economy: Dismantling the infrastructure which is causing rapid global heating, the melting of earth’s glaciers, the warming of the ocean, the increasingly erratic and dangerous change in local climates around the world. Scientists are calling for that infrastructure to be dismantled now as we transition to a new, sustainable economy. If government and industry choose to ignore the truth of the matter, what is so violent about citizens—stewards—taking matters into their own hands and dismantling that infrastructure and composting it to generate the future we depend on to survive? Is it an act of violence, or an act of compassion?
Yes, there would be reverberations, our energy and financial systems would be shocked by such action. But such composting would take place along other forms of composting: composting capitalism by creating mutual aid networks and community energy projects; composting private property by peaceably occupying and sharing roofs; composting industrial agriculture by developing locally-owned, regenerative inner city farms. A transition is not about throwing away the old, but repurposing the valuable so that it serves people and planet before profit. Such acts are creative, compassionate, daring and hopeful. Composting allows the new and nutritious to emerge from the decaying; it is an act of stewardship which extends, perhaps, to even blowing up pipelines.
© Rachel Donald
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