Time to Fight Dirty

The Utah legislature just passed a law that makes “inhibiting or impeding the operation of a critical infrastructure facility” — a category that includes oil and gas facilities, power plants, and railroads — a felony punishable by five years to life in prison. Another law passed along with it makes a person who “interferes with or interrupts critical infrastructure” chargeable with a third degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. Utah is now the 19th state to criminalize all disruptive protests at pipeline and other fossil fuel infrastructure sites. 

The legislation doesn’t define what constitutes “inhibiting or impeding,” it is quite likely that anyone who blocks a roadway or chains themselves to a bulldozer could wind up in prison for five years or more for a first-degree felony. By way of context, first-degree felony status has normally been reserved for crimes like murder and sexual assault; actions that hinder the sacred extraction of oil, on the other hand, would have fallen under the heading of vandalism or criminal mischief. 

In addition, national- and state-level legislators are attempting to legally prohibit divestment from fossil fuel industry by pension funds, mutual funds, endowments, and the like. For all intents and purposes, they’re systematically closing off all avenues for peacefully opposing them within the rules of the system.

Civil disobedience and peaceful protest, traditionally, presuppose that the demonstrators share a common moral community with those they are protesting against and with the state, and appeal to the conscience of the latter. The fossil fuel industry, and the legislators who passed these laws on their behalf, have no such illusions. They have escalated the punishment for attacks on their infrastructure to levels we would ordinarily associate with wartime sabotage, because they realize they really are in a war against the rest of us.

It’s time for us to do the same. The fossil fuel industry, and its servants in the state, are systematically destroying the biosphere we depend on for our survival in order to enrich themselves. They are not part of any moral community in common with ourselves, or misguided opponents who can be converted by an appeal to their conscience. They are our enemy in a war. As Utah Phillips put it, the people killing our earth have names and addresses.

And, as Carl von Clausewitz succinctly put it, the goal of a war is to destroy the enemy’s capacity to fight. This means identifying the enemy’s critical vulnerabilities, attacking them with the least risk or loss to ourselves, and maximizing damage with the intent of rendering them incapable of further destructive action.

Large-scale power or fuel infrastructures typically involve countless miles of transmission lines, far beyond the ability of any entity to guard or patrol even a small fraction of, and significant numbers of critical nodes which likewise cannot all be guarded, and any one of which could if attacked disable the entire system until it is repaired. In Iraq, the insurgency against U.S. occupation forces and the regime it installed frequently attacked such vulnerable nodes at a cost far less — orders of magnitude less — than the enormous cost it imposed on the infrastructures in both repair costs and lost services. As a result, the infrastructures were typically down a significant part of the time. And in Nigeria, recurring attacks on oil pipelines by MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) were at one point resulting in losses of 300,000 barrels per day.

So rather than high-visibility symbolic actions where the crowds, cameras and bulldozers are, maybe it’s time to think about lower visibility actions where they aren’t

Of course, insofar as it remains possible to work within the system and use its rules against it, we should do that as well. Lawsuits and bureaucratic obstruction, for example, can often provide a significant payoff in terms of imposing costs on the enemy, at little cost to our side. 

And we shouldn’t entirely give up on traditional goals like “raising public awareness.” But even here, the primary group whose awareness is being targeted is much more specific — as with the Iraqi insurgency’s attacks on support services contractors and other mercenaries, the goal is to make the side they’re on unprofitable. Even if investment funds are legally prohibited from divesting from fossil fuel industry for purely environmental reasons, everything we do — either through legal and bureaucratic obstruction or through sabotage — to raise the marginal risk and cost and reduce the rate of profit on such investment will make them less appealing purely from the standpoint of good old-fashioned profit-loss calculations.

Naturally, I am not urging any individual to assume any level of risk by taking specific actions that might result in their prosecution or imprisonment. It’s a tough world out there, people have lives and family responsibilities to consider, and it’s up to each person to decide such things for themselves.

But even before we even address the issue of practical actions, we need to address whether the picture of the world we’re operating on is a real or a false one. And one of the first steps in that process is questioning whether the extractive, exploitative and amoral system we live under has any moral claims over us that we are obligated to recognize, or whether it is an enemy to be destroyed by any means necessary.

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