I am so inspired by the fantastic images of mass nonviolent direct action targeting fossil fuel infrastructure coordinated through 350.org this month called “Break Free from Fossil Fuels.” Hundreds of people swarming coal mines in the UK and Germany, marching on the Ogoni oil fields in Nigeria, in kayaks blockading oil export ports in the Pacific Northwest and camped out on oil train tracks in Albany. These are actions at “the point of destruction” which are designed to spotlight and expose the location where your target is directly doing harm. Actions at the point of destruction can polarize the issue, raise the stakes, expose bad actors and create iconic images of resistance - as well as actually stop the harm for as long as you can hold the space.
As The Guardian Newspaper reports:
Point-of-destruction action was the bedrock of the environmental movement for a generation - iconic examples like Greenpeace blockading whaling ships, EarthFirst! sitting in old growth trees, or Environmental Justice forces protesting at superfund sites like Love Canal come to mind. (Examples from other movements include peace activists blockading arms shipments to Central America in the 1980s or migrant rights movements shutting down Sheriff Arpaio’s raids by blockading his jail in Arizona in 2010.)
Despite this history, for 20 years climate action has mostly been aimed at changing consumer behavior — like buying new lightbulbs or riding bikes, lobbying for more fuel efficient vehicles, debating the finer points of bright lines, tipping points, carbon pricing and offset markets, and big marches and media oriented actions aimed at world leaders in the UNFCCC process.
For years, I watched as 350 coordinated global days of action that asked people to “Step it Up” and take feel good group photos of their gatherings that called out for “climate action” with mass picnics, bike rides and eventually marches. While getting folks engaged and connected is great, this story lacked a compelling frame about why this crisis is happening, what we can do, how to do it, and what is at stake. In other words, the story framed the problem as an excess of carbon (more than 350ppm) without connecting that problem to a problematic actor - i.e. a villain - that everyone could agree to hold accountable.
I am so heartened to see this shift to focus on fossil fuels directly and to embrace mass nonviolent direct action. Break Free’s rallying cry to “Keep it in the ground” is an important shift in strategy and framing. Keep it in the ground has become the right-now-meme of the movement, and it is important to note that it comes directly from movements rooted in place — environmental justice communities that have been fighting fossil fuels on Indigenous lands and in communities of color for generations: from coal mining on Navajo lands that poisons the community’s water, to Indigenous movements in Ecuador resisting oil drilling in their homelands of the Amazon, to the Ogoni peoples’ struggle against the murderous repression of their protests against Shell in the Niger Delta…These movements are the ones who have trumpeted the slogan “Keep the coal in the hole, keep the oil in the soil, and keep the tar sands in the land!” for many years now. The rallying cry to Keep it in the Ground comes directly from the global movement of peasant farmers, Indigenous peoples, environmental justice communities and the struggle for human rights.
Keep it in the Ground as a story lends itself to tactics that center on the points of destruction. At this stage in the climate struggle, this is exactly where we need to be: foreshadowing the shut down of the fossil fuel era and putting bodies on the line to shut down fossil fuel infrastructure.
Story-based strategy offers a framework for direct action called “The Points of Intervention,” which include the points of destruction, consumption, production, and decision - as well as the signature idea of “Direct Action at the Point of Assumption.” Action at the point of assumption targets not only a physical point, but an underlying assumption in the narrative we are aiming to shift. It is designed for semiotic disruption, powerful symbolism, and maximal narrative impact. I would say Break Free has a lot of those elements, but in its next iteration, could go a step father in how it is telling the story about what comes next. What is that indelible image that can’t be unseen, that captures a mass imagination and makes climate justice visible and irressistable?
The images from #BreakFree are powerful and fantastic - so take them in, be inspired, and get creative in asking, How could this go even further?
In closing, I am leave you with of the words of the late Father Daniel Berrigan:
“Know where you stand, and stand there.”
For more about the points of intervention, check out this worksheet from the Center for Story-based Strategy.