Read the latest installment in META’s special series on how environmental injustice is causing inequality around the world.
Gas-related earthquakes stirred the Groningers into action a long time ago, but they are now joined by over 700 activists from all over Europe, who put their bodies before a crucial gate for tankers as I write.
This human blockade is keeping the Groningen gas underground, right here and right now.
While not everything in this action is legal, the action itself has legitimacy. In the scientific paper entitled “Is Earth F ** ked?” geophysicist Brad Werner concludes with “more or less”. But in his complex models, one variable gives hope: direct environmental actions by people who carry out blockades or sabotages and who go beyond the capitalist logic. That is what is happening in Groningen now.
Mathias (30) is one of the busload of participants coming from Belgium. This is not a first for him. As a reason to be here, he says: “Here I do not feel so powerless or alone anymore, in relation to the climate breakdown. But it’s not just about that positive energy, our collective strategy is also working.” To keep it that way, Mathias gives trainings. “This is about peaceful collective civil disobedience to tackle the climate problem at source: the exploitation of fossil fuels. There is no room for rioting machos here,” he says.
This is certainly clear at the last training session before the blockade, where I walk with the Belgian student Stephanie Colling Woode Williams (27). She discusses with her ‘buddy’ what they are going to do if one of them is pushed to the ground by a police officer. Stephanie says she is calm in confrontations with the police. “I have experienced worse in an anti-racism demonstration, where extreme right-wing opponents awaited us and pulled leather belts from their pants,” she says.
At the training on Monday, Stephanie’s affinity group was one of ten that practiced a so-called ‘finger’ exercise where a total of about 100 disobedient citizens break through a cordon of a dozen acting cops. It is only one of the many preparations that the activists have been working on for days. At the training three real police officers were watching, but plenty more awaited the activists on Tuesday. Nevertheless, the blockade succeeded.
The problem for police forces and the governments they work for is that activists learn from each other and are getting better at this. Without a political revolution their numbers continue to grow. The resignation of Nicolas Hulot as Minister of Ecological Transition in France this morning shows once again how difficult it is to bring about change through the usual political path.
The bigger picture
There is a worldwide below-radar mass of people whose patience ran out long ago. Someone who literally mapped that is the ecological economist Joan Martinez-Alier. Together with activists from around the world, he and his academic team created an online atlas with more than 2,500 environmental conflicts, including maps with actions against gas and blockade actions. He describes the emergence of a global movement for environmental justice.
The protests against gas extraction are just some of the 178 mapped conflicts against what academics call ‘unburnable fuels’. Faced with declining stocks, the fossil fuel industry depends on unconventional means and locations of extraction: from oil sand and fracking to Arctic and deep water petroleum sources. According to the EnvJustice research team, the resulting contamination of fresh water supplies, devastation of marine systems, seismic activity and global warming is what gave rise to a Blockadia movement of direct action -forging a connection between unique struggles due to the combination of global and local threats that oil, coal and gas pose. Massive oppositions have resulted in moratoria on off-shore drilling, litigation over continued oil exploration, bans on fracking, the removal of gas pipelines, and indeed: the halting of oil and gas operations.
Solidarity accross and within borders
In addition to the international aid, national solidarity is also visible everywhere: The Dutch support the Groningers in their struggle to stop gas exploitation that has been underway here for decades. Actions such as ‘Support a Groninger’ and ‘Knit for Groningen’ touch many Dutch people. The fact that gas production in Groningen already caused over 1000 earthquakes affecting over 100,000 people living in now unsellable homes has something to do with this.
Groninger Jan Dales (58) is someone like that. “My father died of a heart attack that I directly associate with the corruption at the institution that refused to acknowledge the damage to his house.” Jan paid 2,000 euros to a certified researcher who proved that the house did indeed need considerable stability repairs – only to hit a brick wall of unwillingness. With his lawsuit, he made it to national TV and he managed to get Prime Minister Mark Rutte to visit him in Groningen. “My troubled lawsuit suddenly caught a bizarre momentum. The day before Rutte came the judge decided that my complaint was inadmissible, after which the Prime Minister came to tell me that he could do nothing.” Jan’s had made up his mind: “Elections do not change anything here and the rule of law is rotten, so we’re left with direct action”.
Hanneke (40) is the spokeswoman for Code Red, the movement that organises this action. She saw the will to action grow rapidly. “Code Red was created in the wake of the more established environmental organisations, in whose business model this kind of direct action to keep fossil fuels in the ground does not fit. People are tired of soft action, they want to take action right now. We make that possible.” The ongoing Code Red action is the largest ever in the Netherlands. The multinationals of this world may gain power, the same can be said of the multinational resistance against polluting companies. The history books will be very mild to the people who resist.
In the meantime, it is forbidden in gas-land Netherlands for every new building to have a gas connection. In Belgium, where one and a half million people depend on the gas from Groningen, only the obligation for a gas connection for new buildings has been abolished. Belgium’s government is lagging behind a rapidly changing situation. The UK is even worse off, with the continuing push for gas, fracked or not. Forget the myth that gas is a so-called bridge fuel. A German think tank calls gas a bridge to nowhere. Gas is a bridge that is collapsing, with many of us walking right on it.