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Beans, Beatings and Bombings: Has Direct Action ever worked?

Updated: Jul 4, 2023

Extinction Rebellion’s recent announcement that they would ‘quit’ the use of direct action has shone a spotlight on the effectiveness – or lack thereof – of this tactic as a means to achieve change in climate policy. Yet with a string of new eco groups taking up the baton – Insulate Britain and Just Stop Oil among the most high-profile – alongside veterans like Greenpeace, has direct action ever worked? Furthermore, can it ever work?

What is direct action?

Direct action is a form of protest where activists use direct violent or nonviolent means to achieve their goals, either making changes themselves or forcing decision-makers to make changes. This is in contrast to traditional forms of protest, where activists would hold marches, vigils, or petitions to achieve change indirectly by applying pressure on decision-makers or raising awareness. Nonviolent direct action includes strikes, sit-ins and blockades, whilst violent direct action includes assault, arson and sabotage.

Both nonviolent and violent direct action have been widely used throughout history to fight for change, from Mahatma Gandhi’s Indian Independence Movement to the Martin Luther King Jr-led Civil Rights movement in the United States. But in recent decades it has been increasingly adopted by groups protesting the climate crisis, who have become frustrated with the slow rate of progress and the often wilful ignorance or malice displayed by governments and businesses.

Recounting the entire history of arson, sabotage and strikes would take me absolutely ages, and even my mum wouldn’t have the patience to read it, so I’ll narrow the focus to a sweep through the history of climate direct action, from Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion to Insulate Britain and Just Stop Oil. Hold on to your baked beans.


An Extinction Rebellion poster. Photo credits: Markus Spiske


Greenpeace

Greenpeace, founded in 1971, popularised modern direct action on the environment. Now a huge global network of 3 million members campaigning on a wide range of issues, from deforestation to whaling to nuclear energy, from the outset Greenpeace sought to use radical new tactics to raise awareness and force policy changes.

It’s the late 1960s. The United States is testing nuclear weapons on the remote Alaskan island of Amchitka. Having held benefit concerts and protest marches to no avail, irate and frustrated anti-nuclear activists chartered a ship, renamed it Greenpeace and sailed it towards the island, seeking to block American ships from travelling to the island, and thus prevent further tests from taking place.

In the end, the move proved to be a bit of a damp squib. Bad weather forced the Greenpeace to turn back after confronting a Coast Guard ship, but nevertheless, the stunt generated huge publicity and a strong backlash against the tests. The US eventually abandoned nuclear tests on Amchitka after the controversy, and Greenpeace – and its raison d’etre – was born. The use of ships in direct action has since become Greenpeace’s signature move, being used to block whaling ships in Japan and prevent oil exploration. The most dramatic – and bloody – incident, however, took place at the ends of the earth.

It’s 1985. The former fishing trawler Rainbow Warrior, now owned by Greenpeace, sails to the South Pacific, aiming to disrupt French nuclear testing in the region. Whilst berthed in New Zealand, two explosions rip through the ship, sinking it and killing a freelance photographer on board. Although the French government repeatedly denied involvement, 2 French secret agents were caught fleeing New Zealand by police, and it emerged that the bombing had been orchestrated by the French secret service, and carried out on the orders of President Mitterand himself, with the aim of averting disruption to French nuclear testing. The episode not only caused a crisis in France and ruptured international relations, but also had a profound impact on Greenpeace themselves.


The Rainbow Warrior in Amsterdam, 1981. 4 years later it was bombed by the French security services. Image credit: Hans Van Dijk


Whilst activists were stunned and horrified, it also served to galvanise the movement, and validated the strategy of direct action – particularly the use of ships – to effect change. The fact that Greenpeace protests had reached the top of the French government and encouraged such a dramatic and horrific response demonstrated the effectiveness of direct action, despite the dreadful cost. A new Rainbow Warrior was quickly purchased, whilst a huge benefit concert was held to raise money for Greenpeace.

It should be noted, however, that despite the international furore generated by the bombing and the massive media coverage, it had little effect on French nuclear testing, which continued unabated until 1996. Although it brings substantial media coverage and attention to its causes, Greenpeace’s direct actions have only occasionally brought about a significant shift in policy or strategy from those they are targeting. Japanese whaling continues, as does rampant oil exploration. For companies more interested in profits than PR, Greenpeace’s actions are little more than a highly public thorn in the side.

Extinction Rebellion

“Letters, emailing, marches don’t work. You need about 400 people to go to prison. About two to three thousand people to be arrested.” So argues Roger Hallam, one of the co-founders of Extinction Rebellion (XR), a decentralised, loosely organised protest movement set up in 2018, which has employed nonviolent direct action – particularly mass arrests, but also occupations of buildings and blockades of streets – with the stated aim of forcing the government to take much stronger action on climate change.

The use of mass arrests as a tactic – inspired by the suffragettes, US civil rights activists and Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) activists – is designed to overwhelm police resources and waste police time. At a protest in London in April 2019 1130 people were arrested; at another in October 2019 1830 people were held by the police, working as a massive ballast on policing resources, not to mention hugely disrupting everyday life.

Inevitably this approach – causing inconvenience and disruption to the lives of large numbers of people – has proved to be hugely controversial, both with the general public and with fellow activists. In a 2019 YouGov poll, 54% of respondents said they opposed Extinction Rebellion’s shutdowns of London’s streets, whilst 36% supported them.

Its tactics have been criticised not only by conservatives, who see them as extremists and terrorists – Boris Johnson described the group as ‘uncooperative crusties’ – but also by climate activists and commentators, who see their approach as divisive and counter-productive, turning potential supporters away from them and excessively radicalising the climate movement. On the other hand, supporters would argue that traditional methods of protest have failed, and the severity and urgency of the climate crisis means more radical methods have to be used.

Extinction Rebellion themselves seem to have decided that their approach hasn’t worked, recently announcing their decision to move away from direct action in a New Years’ message titled ‘We Quit’. They admitted that ‘very little has changed’ since the group began its campaign, and signalled the new direction they would take: ‘this year, we prioritise attendance over arrest and relationships over roadblocks’. The failure of their tactics to gain either mass support or political change, combined with increasingly tough police responses and fresh efforts from the British government to clamp down on the right to protest have meant XR no longer sees direct action as worth the (increasingly significant) cost. The most substantial outcome of XR’s campaign is more draconian restrictions around the right to protest, using XR’s actions as a key reason.

Whether Extinction Rebellion ever returns to direct action – or whether they truly will give up the tactic for good – remains to be seen, yet it is now clear that even XR see their approach as a failure. Yet some of its offshoots have not only embraced the strategy, but taken it to even more bold and high-profile extremes.


An Extinction Rebellion blockade in London. Photo credit: Joël de Vriend


Insulate Britain

Insulate Britain is one of these offshoots. Set up in 2021 by 6 members of Extinction Rebellion, it has taken direct action a step further than Extinction Rebellion, blockading major motorways such as the M25, as well as other key infrastructure such as the Port of Dover. Whilst its methods were bolder and more disruptive, its aims were also narrower and more specific: it demanded the British government improve insulation in all social housing in Britain by 2025, and retrofit better insulation in all homes nationwide by 2030. Better insulation reduces the need for heating, and thus reduces the consumption of the fossil fuels which provide this heating.

Therefore Insulate Britain sees their campaign not only as a way of cutting energy bills and thus helping with cost of living, but also as a key method in the fight against climate change. By keeping the focus narrow and achievable – most of Europe has much better insulation and lower energy bills than Britain – the group believes its use of direct action to be both justified and effective.

It raises awareness of an issue that is well within the government’s power to resolve, and would be to the benefit of both the government and the country and, they argue, it would cause the government far less pain and hassle simply to properly insulate homes – which should not even be an issue in the first place – and hence the rationale behind direct action. By raising the costs to the government of resisting action, Insulate Britain seeks to force the state to change course.

Yet, as with Extinction Rebellion, in targeting the government Insulate Britain causes huge disruption to the daily lives of normal people, provoking fury from those affected, with stories of ambulances or fire engines being blocked causing particular anger. All this makes it easier for the government to dismiss or ignore the protests, as the methods turn a lot of people away from the group and are used to justify heavy-handed tactics from the government in the name of ‘law and order’. As with other direct action groups, debate rages within and without climate activism as to whether this strategy will prove counter-productive. Only time will tell, but there’s no sign yet of a change in the government’s policy.


Insulate Britain blockade the road outside the Home Office in London. Image credit: Jamie Lowe


Just Stop Oil

Inspired by both Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain, Just Stop Oil has taken even more controversial and high-profile steps to try to force the government’s hand. Set up in February 2022, it started by blockading oil terminals and motorways and disrupting football matches, but quickly pivoted to more unusual and creative methods: running onto the track at the British Grand Prix, throwing a variety of colourful foodstuffs (baked beans, tomato soup) on to priceless paintings (Van Goghs, Vermeers), and vandalising government office buildings with spray paint.

Even more so than earlier groups, Just Stop Oil’s tactics – particularly its attempted vandalism of priceless paintings – have caused uproar, even among those sympathetic to their aims, who see their approach as counterproductive and a PR disaster. By associating climate activism with damaging cultural artefacts, so the argument goes, Just Stop Oil taints the entire movement and sets back efforts to fight climate change and oil corporations. Their supporters argue these moves generate huge publicity and bring attention to the issue – which they certainly do – but very little of the coverage is focused on the group’s aims and is instead dominated by outrage and accusations of cultural vandalism, obscuring the intent behind the action.

It’s too soon to tell whether Just Stop Oil’s reinvention of direct action will succeed where Extinction Rebellion failed, as the outrage over their tactics has overshadowed the substantive debate. The one quantifiable consequence of their actions so far has been to give the UK government further cover to impose stricter curbs on the right to protest, spinning these direct action groups as not only inconvenient and noisy, but also as an assault on the nation’s cultural heritage.

Direct action preceded the modern climate movement by centuries, but activists have transformed age-old tactics to challenge what they see as ineffective forms of protest, as well as the looming catastrophe of climate change and the failure of governments to tackle the crisis with sufficient urgency. These tactics have been the subject of ferocious debate both within and without the climate movement, and it is as yet unclear whether the new generation of bold, inventive new direct action groups will be able to force progress where its antecedents have failed.

About the author: Matt Gillett is the News & Politics Editor of WILD Magazine. He recently graduated from the University of York with a degree in History and Politics.

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