Wynn Bruce set himself on fire April 22, 2022 – Earth Day. His self-immolation in the US Supreme Court was a protest against inadequate action on the climate crisis. He later died of his injuries.
Two days earlier in the UK, climate campaigner Angus Rose ended his 37 day hunger strike when a parliamentary group finally agreed to host a briefing by the chief scientific adviser to MPs and ministers.
These radical forms of protest have historically been deployed by social movements to highlight desperate situations, when conventional legal and policy responses have been deemed woefully inadequate. After decades of international negotiations, the last report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has once again warned that current emissions put countries far from limiting warming to less than 2°C by 2100. Severe droughts, intolerable heat, wildfires, severe storms, crop failures, sea level rise and social unrest are expected. for spiral once global temperatures exceed this threshold.
Thus, some climate activists are likely to deploy increasingly radical tactics in the years to come. History shows that this can be a good thing for the wider movement.
In my research, I have explored what motivates radical environmental activists to engage in so-called direct action. Invented by the American anarcho-feminist Voltairine de Cleyre, direct action was popularized during Mahatma Gandhi’s opposition to British colonial rule in India. Its use proliferated in civil rights and anti-war protests in the 1960s and 1970s, including in the form of sit-ins, marches, and other forms of civil disobedience that defied state laws.
Direct action is a mode of protest that takes place outside of parliamentary politics. It encompasses a range of tactics. Within the environmental movement, Hambach Forest activists in Germany have used direct action to occupy old-growth forests designated for clear-cutting. Extinction Rebellion a roads and oil depots blocked across the UK. More controversial tactics include acts of sabotage, such as dismantling machinery. In 1986, for example, two engineers from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society destroyed half of the Icelandic whaling fleet and a processing station in the port of Reykjavik, shutting down the country’s commercial whaling industry for 16 years.
These tactics are designed to disrupt the status quo and stop an antagonistic system or process at its source. They are also seeking to draw media and public attention to the issue. But they tend to be adopted as a last resort, when a situation is urgent and more conventional modes of political participation, such as voting and lobbying, are deemed insufficient.
The radical flank effect
Wynn Bruce’s self-immolation recalls a similar protest in the mid-twentieth century. Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức set himself on fire in 1963 to highlight the persecution of religious minorities by the US-backed regime in South Vietnam.
These radical acts of self-sacrifice have often taken place where the mobilization of a social movement is already in progress. This dynamic is known as radical flank effect. When the movement’s efforts are frustrated, radical segments emerge and deploy more disruptive tactics. These serve to make the demands of their traditional counterparts more palatable to governments and the public, effectively advancing the agenda of the whole movement.
In the late 1950s, alongside the armed self-defense prospects of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, Martin Luther King Jr’s calls for the dismantling of segregation laws seemed less sweeping. Militant suffragettes the destruction of property made granting women the right to vote a reasonable concession. And the suffragettes The death of Emily Davison after colliding with a horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913, whether intentionally or not, brought the fight for universal suffrage to the world’s attention.
Radical forms of resistance – from the destruction of property to hunger strikes and self-immolation – serve a similar function in the environmental movement. They underscore the urgency of the climate crisis as well as the reasonableness of requests from traditional organizationssuch as the need to quickly phase out fossil fuel projects.
Of course, there is always a risk that more extreme tactics could alienate certain segments of the public. But research suggests that people tend to be more supportive of radical tactics when they see conventional political solutions fail.
Sociologists Paweł Żuk and Piotr Żuk to pretend that tactics such as self-immolation are acts of rebellion against a deficient reality: gestures of self-sacrifice that alert observers to the suffering of an entire community. These forms of protest are particularly common in times of crisis – such as the unfolding climate emergency – when the lives of millions – human and non-human – can be threatened.
These modes of environmental protest are also powerful articulations of grief over the diminished prospects of a viable future for many of Earth’s inhabitants. In his recent book How to blow up a pipeline Andreas Malm, researcher and activist, observes that it is “better to die blowing up a pipeline than to burn impassively – but we hope, of course, that never happens. If we resist fatalism, that may not be the case.