Intervention – “How to Blow Up a Climate Protest”

Theo Aalders (University of Bonn) and Richard Georgi (University of Gothenburg)

Attacks on the Nord Stream pipelines, digital bureaucracies, and the German train network illustrate that infrastructure has become a battlefield in the European heartlands of the 21st century. Amid Russia’s war against Ukraine, German authorities and security experts render these attacks as part of a hybrid war in which secure infrastructure is vital for the defence of the nation. This securitisation coincides with the radicalisation of climate protest that targets infrastructure to bring environmental concerns back on the political agenda. Will the rhetorical and practical armament for new hybrid wars be used to dismantle, or “blow up”, militant branches of the climate movement, and what does this means for the right to dissent to climate capitalism?

Infrastructure is a curious thing. As the foundation for basic societal functions like the circulation of objects, people, and information, it remains in the shadow of public attention. Yet precisely because it is so integral to modern societies, it also can come to embody the state. Functioning infrastructure can legitimise and literally cement political leadership; leaders and regimes often tie their fate to the success of infrastructural projects. On the other hand, malfunctioning infrastructure can bring it down.

Attacks on digital and analogue infrastructure are nothing new but an established practice of shadow conflicts in the 21st century. Yet, what is new about recent developments in Germany is that infrastructural disruptions now figure spectacularly in a society that has deluded itself into believing it has been in a prolonged state of peace since World War II, untouched by the injustices and conflicts of this world.

In response to the recent attacks, public authorities sacralised infrastructure as critical for national security in the scenario of a new hybrid war. It is a war that is fought both on the ground and in the digital realm, a war that’s already here and yet unseen, one in which the enemy is anonymous, and any attack may just as well have been an accident.

Because of infrastructure’s paradoxical role as the material basis for both the flourishing and ruination of societies—and as a site for displaying political power and conjuring common dreams as a nation—it is not only targeted in wars but figures prominently in contentious practices as well: from anti-colonial struggles directed against railways and other instruments of empire, to militant labour struggles and democratisation in the 19th and 20th century, to the annual occupations of coal mining sites in Germany. Activism against infrastructure expresses different visions of politics, frustrations, prefiguration of better futures, or a desperate attempt to disrupt machineries of enslavement, destruction, and death—and often, a mixture of all the above.

Militant climate activists target certain infrastructures because they constitute the material basis for propelling disastrous climate collapse. In Germany, activists occupy the deserted settlement Lützerath to stop the expansion of open-pit lignite coal mines that leave behind ruined landscapes reminiscent of Mad Max (see the photograph above, taken by Theo Aalders). It is but the latest example of a well-orchestrated activist scene, including associations like Ende Gelände, Fridays for Future, or Letzte Generation. Sabotaging railway lines has become a ritual of the anti-nuclear movement to politicise the transport of atomic waste, while other activists glue themselves to traffic-intense roads momentously disrupting car mobility and its disastrous ecological effects.

Political authorities have employed a repertoire of countermeasures, framed in paternalistic rhetoric that shows understanding for the general cause and the perpetrators’ frustrations but warns against “going too far”. They resort to depicting sabotage as an irrational but serious crime, or even a parasitic practice and “stage for morally depraved rich kids”, as a member of the extreme right-wing party AfD described Fridays for Future.

Heated debates over the meaning of infrastructures and attacks against them are not confined between powerholders and activists but have historical antecedents in contentions among the left. When, in the 19th century, the Luddites destroyed machines in response to rapid industrialisation and mass unemployment, Marx responded sympathetically but rather dismissively. He wrote that the workers were not yet able to “distinguish between machinery and its employment by capital”. To him, the Luddites were not revolutionary—rather technophobic and backward-looking. In his view, infrastructures as means of production are something to be seized, appropriated, and transformed, rather than disrupted. This position pitched his progress-oriented scientific socialism against Bakunin’s collectivist anarchism, which foregrounds the productive nature of destroying infrastructures and the techno-political systems they sustain.

We find this controversy figuring anew in contemporary climate movements, when German activist Tadzio Müller, for example, claims that “breaking shit” has the potential to widen the scope of the doable; and Luisa Neubauer, one of the most prominent organisers of Fridays for Future Germany, declared that “of course we’re thinking about how to blow up a pipeline”, referencing Andreas Malm’s eponymous book. After the reflexive outcry in the media and politics, she clarified that she merely meant preventing the construction of the new East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline between Tanzania and South Sudan. But creative destruction challenges the implicit consensus of the German climate justice movement, in which Fridays for Future actually prides itself in its non-militant strategies, and even radical groups restrict themselves to only momentary and reversable practices.

In the writings and speeches of journalists and politicians, however, the spectre of climate militancy is already very present. When ranting about highway blockades by the climate activist group Last Generation (Letzte Generation) and fantasising about potential punishments, conservative German politicians introduced the term “climate RAF”, in allusion to the Red Army Faction (Rote Armee Fraktion), an armed left-wing group that perpetrated several deadly attacks in Western Germany from the 1970s to 1990s. Conservative politicians publicly expressed vivid fantasies of state violence against the “climate terrorists”, from preventive detention to deploying the full force of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency. Although “climate terrorists” was ousted as the “non-word of the year” in 2022 by a jury of German linguists, climate protestors in Bavaria have nevertheless already been detained for 30 days without trial under an anti-terrorism law.

It is truly bizarre how conservative media and politics react with disdainful indifference to suffering from the climate catastrophe while working themselves up into a moral frenzy over recent climate protests in deserted villages and on roads. To mind comes the lingering relevance of Marx’s trenchant comment on the public indignation over desperate acts of incendiarism by communards during the bloody crush of the Paris Commune: “The bourgeoisie of the whole world, which looks complacently upon the wholesale massacre after the battle, is convulsed by horror at the desecration of brick and mortar!” The profiteers of the deadly fossil boom seem to know that they have gotten away with their deceptions too cheaply so far. The overreaction of the discursive immune system, which reads into mild expressions of dissent the first signs of terror and rushes to define ever-new red lines for what activism should be allowed to do, is perhaps a sign of the true anxiety about an already anticipated radical climate movement.

These red lines gain a new quality in the context of Germany’s recent “Zeitenwende”, the politically declared watershed moment responding to the hybrid war scenario triggered by Russia’s invasion into Ukraine. Chancellor Scholz solemnly announced measures that would bring military deterrence to the centre of German foreign policy, thus upending the entire European security architecture.

What this Zeitenwende will mean in practice remains to be seen, but the securitisation of infrastructure will likely play a major role in it. Anthropologist Susan Leigh Star observed that infrastructure “becomes [politically] visible upon breakdown”, and this is certainly true for Germany in 2023 when looming attacks raised political awareness about infrastructure’s vulnerability and strategic importance both as a symbol for national strength and as material support for industry and people. This is illustrated by a rare public statement of a Bundeswehr general, in which he described the dawn of a new age, one that requires a change in security doctrine as well as individual, mental, and practical preparedness for more attacks on infrastructures. As a result, the destruction of a coal excavator, for instance, may not be read as the disruption of a climate-wrecking industry but rather as an attack against German energy security. Spies, climate activists, and foreign armies all become blurred in the twilight of hybrid warfare.

The climate movement faces increasing pressure to position itself vis-à-vis the new significance of infrastructure. This leaves it an impossible choice. On the one hand, more radical tactics, such as the blockage of highways and coal mining sites, have managed to pierce the deafening silence of a lethargic media and public that seemingly accepted climate inaction for decades. On the other hand, opening the activism repertoire to attacks against infrastructures risks losing legitimacy in the eyes of a population, which rightfully fears increasing energy prices, as well as increased persecution by a now expanding security-military apparatus.

But there are also reasons for hope. As companies reap unprecedented profits, beyond one’s own economic imagination, during a time when almost everyone else is struggling with rising costs for food and energy, sympathies for the fossil fuel industry are at an all-time low. The fossil fuel industry and its infrastructure of destruction have long been regarded as the unfortunate precondition for human welfare. Increasingly, though, it appears as a problem to both climate and social justice. A society independent from fossil capitalism is becoming imaginable as the infrastructure it’s built on is starting to be seen as a political choice.