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Soup-splattered Van Gogh vs Derna’s 11,300 dead — going overboard in the name of climate activism

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Leonie Joubert is an independent science writer and contributor to Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet climate desk. She was named as one of Rhodes University Journalism & Media Studies’ 50 distinguished alumni as it celebrated half a century of journalism training.

Journalists step into battle with the chainmail of press freedom, which gives a margin of protection, in and outside of war zones. Environmental activists don’t. Journalists are celebrated for putting their lives on the line. Climate activists are spat on, insulted, and even charged with terrorism.

Climate activists play a similar role to that of journalists: informing the public, shaping discourse, and wrestling the narrative back from the powerful. While journalists wear the chainmail of press freedom, activists don’t have the armour of a similar social compact.

Terry Kaelber woke to find himself alone in bed on a Saturday morning in April 2018. He thought his husband David Buckel had simply slipped out of their Brooklyn apartment for a bit, and that he’d be back soon for their usual visit to the local market. Nothing in David’s recent behaviour had given any clue as to what would come next.

David, a former human rights lawyer and prominent New York LGBT+ activist, had walked to a nearby park, where he texted local media outlets to say what he was about to do. He sat on the grass, doused himself in petrol — he chose, deliberately, a fossil fuel — and set himself alight.

The sun was barely up when Terry learned that his partner of more than 30 years was dead. 

This was not a death of despair, Terry explains a few years later on the podcast Death, Sex & Money. It wasn’t suicide. David was drawing on the Buddhist tradition of self-immolation, an act of offering up one’s body in sacrifice, in this case as a political protest to shake the world out of a coma of climate complacency. 

“My early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves,” wrote the 60-year-old in a note explaining his actions.

Only it didn’t do what he’d hoped. The media barely paid attention beyond a few ghoulish moments, and then, predictably, moved on to the next story.

If only he’d chosen to direct his activism into writing, Terry reflects.

“He was such a great writer.”

Is this kind of protest too much? Is it a step too far?

Judging by the reception of the rising wave of climate demonstrations around the world, it is.

But then so is the tomato soup splattered across the protective glass pane covering a Van Gogh by Just Stop Oil activists in 2022, even though the action was intended to leave the painting undamaged. Too radical. Greta Thunberg’s address at the United Nations Climate Summit in 2019. Too angry. Extinction Rebellion’s disruption of city traffic now and then. Too inconvenient.

How far is too far when the endpoint is extinction?

What comes next, after all normal channels have failed? When society continues to deafen itself to letter writing and public appeals and street march sing-alongs, is it time to break the law, asks Chris Packham, the British television presenter and David Attenborough protégé in a recent Channel 4 broadcast.

Civil disobedience is already here, where activists are breaking the law peacefully in the interests of the common good, like the Extinction Rebellion sit-in at Standard Bank’s Johannesburg head offices this month to draw public attention to the financier’s support of fossil fuel development on the continent. The protesters’ transgression was trespassing. Their punishment was to be manhandled from the property by security and bullied outside on the pavement by police.

This road to justice has a long history. Martin Luther King was all for peaceful law-breaking in the struggle for civil rights in 1950s America. If the law is unjust, he said, we have a moral duty to break that law.

South Africa’s liberation movement upped the ante against the apartheid state when it chose to meet violence with violence. The early 1960 Sabotage Campaign deliberately targeted infrastructure though, including places like pass offices which stood for state oppression. The mandate: don’t hurt people. Nelson Mandela got locked up for 27 years for his part in this, although he was willing to die for it too.

Suffragette Emily Davison did die for the cause. After years of fighting for women to be regarded before the law as actual flesh-and-blood human beings, rather than objects — through marches, clashes with police, arson, prison time, and hunger strikes — in June 1913 she made her final protest at the Epsom Derby, a horse race that was a theatre for the rich and powerful. She stepped in the path of galloping steeds and was trampled under the king’s horse. She died of her injuries. Some histories remember her as a militant.

These people weren’t popular at the time. That’s the nature of activism, it’s trying to lurch the zeitgeist out of inertia, and those benefitting from the status quo don’t want disruption. But the Kings, Mandelas and Davisons of the world aren’t doing it to one day be on the right side of history. They’re doing what is right, at that moment in time, so that we can have a world less cruel and exploitative.

And since we’re trying to avert societal annihilation, the stakes are a little higher this time.

Shooting the messenger: those dying on the frontline

Veteran war photographer James Nachtwey argues that reporting from the heart of violence is a way of negotiating peace. Wars are far removed from the lives of those in stable societies, so by showing us the murderous bloody maelstrom, journalists can shake us out of a fog of complacency and indifference. This is how we nudge society to demand more of itself, he says, in the hope of avoiding future wars. The roll of honour is replete with journalists who’ve died in the line of fire.

Environmental activists are dying, too, in a fight for a similar cause. Global Witness reckons that nearly 2,000 were murdered or killed on the job from 2012 to 2022 in the David-vs-Goliath battle to protect the land, forests, rivers, wildlife, culture and the global common good of a stable climate from predatory exploitation by corporations and complicit governments.

But journalists step into battle with the chainmail of press freedom, which gives a margin of protection, in and outside of war zones. Environmental activists don’t.

Journalists are celebrated for putting their lives on the line. Climate activists are spat on, insulted, dragged from the road by irate drivers, vilified by right-wing media, and even charged with terrorism.

The binge-able BBC podcast Burn Wild tells the story of environmental activists in 1990s USA who had used up all peaceful means to stop clear-felling old-growth forests, and then turned to arson, using home-made fire-bombs to torch buildings and equipment. The state’s response was to charge them not just with arson, but with terrorism. The criminal implications were huge, in terms of adding years to their sentences. But the message to the public was as severe: by putting their mugshots on the FBI’s most-wanted terrorist list, environmental activists were now on a par with extremists who fly passenger planes into tower blocks.

Who controls the narrative?

Standard Bank issued a mea culpa after its handling of the climate protests, but it only apologised for roughing up a journalist who got caught up in the fray, and for the bank’s transgression against a free press. How could it not respond cap-in-hand to Daily Maverick editor-in-chief Branko Brkic’s excoriating rebuke, and the heft of the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) hovering in the wings? 

The financier’s curt, three-paragraph statement clearly regards the protesters as out of order and needing to be held accountable. The bank doesn’t apologise for its excessive use of force in evicting them. The only damage the trespassers were doing was to the bank’s reputation, and even that’s easily laundered when a corporation has a huge PR machine on standby.

There’s a mind-blowing disconnect between the push-back against these small “inconvenient” protesters’ voices, and the almost willful blindness towards those who actually control the narrative. Fossil fuel companies have been exposed again and again for deliberately misleading the public and stoking climate denial, even as they’ve known for 30 years that carbon pollution will destabilise the climate. They have used calculated, well-funded communications campaigns to keep us on a path towards unimaginable suffering, so that they can keep pocketing their profits. Al Gore calls this the moral equivalent of a war crime.

Rightwing media stables like those in the Murdoch empire — Fox News, et al — have been complicit in climate disinformation and denial, and deliberately demonised climate activists by calling them extremists and eco-terrorists. You only need to look at video footage of irate European drivers dragging peaceful protesters from road sit-ins, or beating them up, to see how this media narrative emboldens people against vilified protesters. Drivers feel it is their right to physically assault protesters, an act of harmful criminality, in response to a non-violent act of civil disobedience.

What would Derna say?

I wonder what the people of Derna have to say about all of this bluff and bluster around soup and famous paintings and a few hours of traffic bottlenecks?

What Packham calls, kindly, a “childish act of vandalism”, is a soft way for a London student activist to say what journalists are reporting from the frontline of disaster zones: that the climate is already becoming dangerously unstable.

The suffering in Derna, where a third of the Libyan city was razed after a rain bomb collided with the problem of failing infrastructure and incompetent governance, is unimaginable. Over 11,300 people crushed under collapsing buildings, lungs filled with suffocating water in a raging torrent, swept out to sea.

Rebuilding the Mozambican city of Beira after Cyclone Idai levelled most of it in 2019 is more than a little inconvenient. Likewise, the full toll of that year’s cyclone season on Cabo Delgado province in the north of the country is only now being tallied. The Red Cross/Red Crescent joins the dots between Cyclone Kenneth, which arrived a few weeks after Idai, with the existing political instability at the time, and escalating conflict in the years following this record-breaking storm season.

How inconvenient were the floods in Durban in April 2019 and again in 2022, which killed hundreds, destroyed buildings, disrupted water, electricity and sewerage services, and left thousands homeless?

This is only just the start.

The activists who try to draw these largely invisible stories into the noisy, distracted, entertainment-craving global media-scape will never be popular. The problem isn’t the messenger, it’s the message: it’s too fucking frightening to look the truth square in the eye.

It’s easier to shoot the messenger, be it with bile or bullets. DM

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  • Peter Atkins says:

    An excellent wake up call to us armchair activists (I’m one so I know the comfortable feeling of self-righteousness with zero risk or inconvenience). So what’s to be done? Take to the streets? Vote for Green political parties (do we have one in SA?)? Disinvest from fossil fuel related companies (assuming you have any investments)? Pray (if you’re a prayer and if you can figure out what to pray for – it’s complicated unless you settle for “pleas fix this”)? Try convincing your friends and family, one at a time? I don’t know – the armchair is inviting!

  • D'Esprit Dan says:

    Standard Bank’s actions were inexcusable and rightly are being held up to the light. What frustrates me, however, is that the real battle should be fought in Washington, Riyadh and Moscow (amongst others): if Uganda (which presumably was one target of the protesters ire, given Standard Bank’s support for EACOP) pumps its maximum capacity of 216,000 barrels a day, each year they will produce what the USA, Saudi Arabia and Russia produce in a week, or thereabouts. These three countries are, respectively, the world’s richest country (and previously largest polluter before China assumed that mantle), the country that is going to spend US$500 Billion building a ski resort in the desert because they can’t figure out what to do with their money, and the country that has splurged its oil wealth on invading its neighbour, and arming a terrorist group that is slaughtering people across Africa unchecked. That’s where the real battle lies, not trying to stop small, impoverished countries in Africa, with virtually no carbon footprint, from exploiting their natural resources. And before anyone argues that the money will be wasted (quite possibly), what have the three countries above done with their oil revenues, outside of arming themselves to the teeth and engaging in regional and global conflicts?

    • James Reeler says:

      DeeBee, I agree with some of that, but not all. Certainly the biggest emitters are where the biggest shift is needed, and where the largest responsibility lies, and EACOP is small in the scale of the US’s 18 million barrels a day. However, the science is clear that there is no scope for further development of fossil fuels if the world is to limit climate change to under 2 degrees Celcius – and that this is a limit that we cannot afford to breach. Given this, the pushback on fossil fuel development needs to happen *everywhere*. African activists pushing back on African expansion is correct – and activist organisations are also working in those countries you mention to address their issues. The real battle, as you term it, needs to be fought everywhere.

      But I think that there’s also a key point that you raise which is that Africa should benefit from its own resources. Africa has huge non-fossil resources (including wind and solar, but also critical minerals) that absolutely should be developed responsibly to ensure that the benefits accrue to their owner nations. Whilst we should rightly shun the development of resources like EACOP, there is also a need for a shift in how beneficiation is done on African resources, which requires both economic and industrial transformation.

      • D'Esprit Dan says:

        Agreed on the second point – Africa benefitting from its own resources, including renewables and critical minerals (and other minerals), but we’re constantly being told that it’s a global crisis and that the world needs to be in step and come up with a global solution and a shared, just transition to a carbon-free economy. If so, why can’t the USA, Saudi, Russia and other large producers take a 10% cut in their production to allow for African countries to develop oil industries for the medium-term? Basically, we’re being asked to shun development because the global north (including China and much of the rest of Asia), has messed the planet up getting rich. If we’re to keep our oil in the ground, then the equivalent money should be paid to Africa as compensation. The alternative, is to risk countries looking to Asia – specifically China – for funding for fossil fuel projects, with absolutely no control over the effects that will have. As anyone who has seen the effects of Chinese mining on the continent can attest to.

        Africa has a right to develop and to use its resources and we should not be kept at the bottom of the pile simply because rich and powerful countries have plundered the world and demand to keep living lifestyles way beyond the means of the planet to sustain them. The Saudis spent US$2bn to establish the LIV golf tour and have just spent US$1bn on spoiled brats from the European football leagues, but Ugandans should sit around and starve?

        • Ben Harper says:

          Such ignorance is astounding! Of the 127 oil producing nations in the world, Africa has 9 of the top 50 with Nigeria, Angola and Algeria lying in 15th, 16th and 17th respectively.

  • Lawrence Sisitka says:

    Thanks Leonie: there is, as you allude to, a growing global discourse on what justification there may be for transgressing repressive laws in order to raise critical issues in the public space. The jury is still out, and probably always will be, on this, but there are very disturbing signs of those in power, both governmental and corporate, being entirely intolerant of anything but the weakest protestations against their deeply damaging actions (or non-actions); witness the ridiculous and totally repressive new anti-protest laws in the UK and the actions of Standard Bank security detailed here. This issue has a very long history, and what most comfortable middle-class citizens, most of whom condemn almost all protest, conveniently forget is that all the freedoms – to education, to vote, to decent wages/salaries, to limited hours working weeks, to proper health provision etc. – that they now enjoy as their ‘rights’ were not given away by those in power, but were wrested from them, often violently and very often at the cost of the lives of the ‘radicals’ fighting for these freedoms. In essence the very same ‘radicals’ fighting now to save the planet, to reduce inequalities, for a fairer, more just world. So, let them shock us out of our comfort zones because this is nothing compared to the shocks we will incur in the very near future if we do nothing about the real transgressions against the planet and against the majority of its people.

  • Deon Botha-Richards says:

    It’s everyone’s right to protest. But if they have the right to disrupt other the others surely have the right to disrupt their protest?

    The problem with activists is that they’re protesting without fact.

    Derna was not as a result of climate change. It was purely down to human failures. Infrastructure not properly maintained. The storm involved was bad but not unknown for severity.

    The storms in Durban were not the harbingers of things to come. Such storms are in fact common and have been recorded for over 150 years. And the severity was half that of the most destructive. History matters. That one storm is not proof of climate change. Nor of corporations causing it through their lack of willingness to change according to a socialist agenda.

  • T'Plana Hath says:

    Permit me some constructive criticism?

    So climate activists are actually human rights activists? Yeah, I can dig that, but I wonder what OG self-immolator Thich Quang Duc would say about people flinging orange paint around. I’m sure he’d approve of the colour, but here’s the thing:

    Setting yourself on fire is irrational.
    Stepping in front of a galloping horse is irrational.
    Gluing yourself to a highway is irrational.
    Resorting to criminality is unconscionable.

    It is this irrationality that undermines the message of the genuine activists. You make it too easy for people to be dismissive of you. Ending your piece with an expletive isn’t going to shock people out of their fossil-fuelled torpor, it just makes you come off as shrill. I do hope your next piece – to which I look forward – has sensible, legal, non-lethal suggestions. I’m totally on board with civil disobedience and peaceful protests. Let us not craft a rod for our own back, yes?

  • Middle aged Mike says:

    A problem with the movement is that it’s protesting against something that isn’t a current reality. There’s clearly no extinction on the go as we continue to increase the human population at a terrifying rate so ‘Extinction Rebellion’ comes across a little cosplay. Thich Quang Duc didn’t self immolate because he anticipated that Vietnamese people may die in huge numbers at the hands of the Americans and Emily Wilding didn’t sacrifice herself because women were at risk of losing the vote. The ills were self evident and impossible for any rational person to ignore.

    A second problem is that it concentrates its actions where everyone knows there are no real consequences so adding to the cosplayishness. To the best of my knowledge there haven’t been any meaningful extinction rebellion or similar groups actions in Russia, Saudi, Iraq, China, Iran or the UAE who between them make up the bulk of the oil currently pumped.

    Lastly, many of the people involved in these actions are quite clearly not living the sack cloth and ashes existence they advocate the rest of us being subjected to right now by ‘just stopping oil’. Until there are people at the front and centre of these protests who are clearly living what they propose by making symbolic sacrifices beyond token hippie clothing choices like walking to demonstrations or carrying their drinking water in gourds rather than plastic bottles the impression of cosplay will simply be reinforced.

    • > There’s clearly no extinction on the go
      I’m afraid, Mike, this isn’t true. There is a staggering amount of species going extinct, biologists and geologists refer to this as the sixth mass extinction, with an extinction rate estimated at 1,000s times the natural average, around 70 species every day or 25,000 a year.

      The consensus is that this is due to human-caused climate change in the ‘Anthropocene’. I agree that humans are not likely to go extinct soon, but our global society is definitely under threat. Of all these many thousands of species at risk, only one can do anything to change the mass extinctions: Us.

  • WILLIE PLESSIS says:

    Young people are increasingly living in fear because of the negative stirring instilled in their minds (angst) by climate activists. Can we kindly also be provided with the number of youngsters that ended their own lives during the past year.

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