Some thoughts on art, direct action, and addiction
The opinions in this article are mine and don’t represent those of Extinction Rebellion Scotland or anyone else.
You might have seen that last week, three XR activists climbed onto the roof of the Scottish Parliament building and dropped a banner reading “Choose Oil or Choose Life”, as one of the opening acts of XR Scotland’s October 2020 Rebellion.
Simultaneously, posters appeared across Scotland with a text entitled “Choose Oil / Choose Life”, which I’d written back in March 2019—with suggestions from other rebels—riffing on the famous speech from Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, as seen in a million student flats, and on the idea of fossil fuels as an addiction, as lethal and hard to kick as heroin.
It’s nice to see this piece emerge again, out in the wild, on walls and bus stops. It seems like a good moment to set down a few thoughts about art, direct action, and our oil addiction.
“Choose Oil / Choose Life” started life as a flyer for Rig Rebellion, the celebrated action in which XR activists occupied the National Museum of Scotland to disrupt the annual dinner of the Scottish Oil Club. One highlight among many of my time in XR so far, has been reading it out to a queue of oil-and-gas executives in evening dress, as they waited to be admitted to the aforementioned dinner. They were a captive audience: the queue was long and slow-moving, since security staff wanted to make sure no XR folk slipped past to cause further havoc (little did they know that one of our activists was on the catering staff). This handed the rebels who’d gathered outside the museum for our own counter-party a golden opportunity to engage—non-violently of course—with the Oil Club members and try to persuade them of the error of their ways.
I can’t say whether we succeeded in convincing any of the oil execs to switch to a less planet-frying line of work. We didn’t manage to get the dinner cancelled, though we did delay it by several hours. Whatever oily plots they were hatching could presumably be hatched just as well, if not better, standing up with cocktails as sitting down over steak. Which, I think, says something about the limitations of disruptive action, in particular when directed at the fossil fuel industries.
Realistically, we just don’t have the capacity to halt the fossil economy through direct action. It might be nice to dream—as Derek Jensen et al. did in Deep Green Resistance—that alongside “aboveground” movements like XR, there are underground movements capable of bringing destructive industries to a grinding halt. In reality, at least in Europe, these underground movements don’t exist. If they did they would be quickly and ruthlessly rooted out by the state, with the wholehearted support of the public. And to be frank, I wouldn’t trust the leaders of such underground movements not to abuse their power.
I don’t mean to dismiss the importance of disruptive action. This is vital work, part of a glorious thread of rebel history, from the Luddites and the “saboteurs” who threw their wooden clogs (sabots) into the works of the dark satanic mills, to the monkey-wrenchers, tree-spikers and road protestors of the late twentieth century, all the way down to the rebels who are right now defending ancient woodlands and nature reserves along the planned route of HS2. I salute the bravery of those who put their bodies and their liberty on the line in defense of Mother Earth, knowing the most they can do is “clog” up the machine for a little while.
Disruptive action at its best has a symbolic importance that far exceeds its material impact. The media love conflict: any action that leads to arrest is automatically newsworthy, and this fact makes disruptive action into political theatre, and activists into actors on the political stage.
In fact, the main aim of disruptive action—and I think this goes for whatever’s in the pipeline, as it were, for this October Rebellion (even if I knew, I couldn’t tell you, could I?)—isn’t disruption for its own sake, but rather disruption as a tool of persuasion. The objective being to persuade, not so much the oil companies or the government, but society as a whole, to revoke the industry’s “social license to operate.” That is to say, to change the widespread perception that fossil fuel companies are benefactors of society, and should be honoured by, for instance, being allowed to hold their annual dinner in a prestigious venue such as the National Museum.
We have a long way to go on this, though we have succeeded in a few places. (At least the Oil Club haven’t been invited back to the museum.) This work of persuasion is at the core of what we do as activists, and it’s here that artists, including writers, play a key role.
I certainly don’t mean that artists ought to be making art that’s preachy and didactic in order to get a message across. That would only turn people off the art and the message as well. (I’m aware that “Choose Oil / Choose Life” may err in that direction.) It’s more that I think every activist—not just professionals who make a living at their art—should practise their direct action as a creative art form.
I’ve written elsewhere about the need to balance disruptive action with prefigurative action—i.e. action that prefigures, and thus conjures into existence, the better world that we dream of: “being the change,” in Gandhi’s overworn phrase. I believe one key feature of that better world is that everyone is free to develop their creativity; which means that prefigurative actions must, by default, be creative. I think the genius of XR lies partly in its recognition of this, and its bringing forth of spaces in which amazing art-activism can happen.
No easy choices
If we make our art truthful and engaging, then we can do a lot to bring people to the point where they’re ready to choose life over oil. But let’s not kid ourselves: at this point, there are no easy choices. Scotland is both user and pusher, the biggest oil producer in Europe; and kicking the oil habit will be no easier and no prettier than coming off heroin. (As an aside, though energy production is currently reserved to Westminster, the SNP is also committed to full economic extraction of North Sea oil, flying in the face of their claim to be world leaders on tackling climate change. Winning independence without also kicking Scotland’s oil dependence would be a Pyrrhic victory leading only to destruction.)
The original Trainspotting speech is, of course, wholly ironic, the point being that there is no real choice. What’s on offer from “life” in the system (in 1980s and ’90s Leith anyway) is so shitty and soul-destroying that you might as well just shoot up and nod out.
Dr Gabor Maté has said that “Addiction is not a choice that anybody makes; it’s not a moral failure; it’s not an ethical lapse; it’s not a weakness of character; it’s not a failure of will, which is how our society depicts addiction… What it actually is: it’s a response to human suffering, and all these people that I worked with had been serially traumatized as children… Addiction is a signal that a person has been seriously wounded by life and has turned to an addiction of some kind to cope with their pain.”
I think that the root of Scotland’s, and the world’s, oil addiction is the deep trauma inflicted by our culture of domination and disconnection, from the land and each other; by centuries of enclosure, land grabs, Lowland and Highland clearances. The work of undoing that trauma will take generations. Despite the optimistic message of “Choose Oil / Choose Life”, in reality the choice is between continuing our damaging addiction, or facing up to the ugly reality of our trauma. Before too long, we’ll all face the consequences of our society’s addiction to oil; the only choice we have is to face them now, or to be confronted with them, involuntarily, sooner rather than later.
Each of us, I think, has had or will have a moment when we inescapably meet those consequences face to face: a moment that will change our lives forever. I can tell you about mine.
Two decades ago I was studying for a PhD on the ecology of rocky shores in northern Spain, with special reference to the impacts of climate change. At that time, I really had only an intellectual engagement with what are called “environmental issues.” I spent three years doing fieldwork, a frustrating exercise in reducing the complexity of nature to mere data. I did, though, get to know the region well: the broad sandy beaches, the kelp forests, the cool deep rock pools full of beautiful, strange sea creatures.
Then, during the last weekend of my field studies, in November 2002, the area was hit by the Prestige oil spill, the worst environmental disaster in Spain’s history. A tanker was caught in a storm off Galicia, refused entry to port by the authorities, and broke up on the high seas. The whole coastline, all the places and creatures I’d come to know and love, were covered in a thick layer of toxic, viscous, stinking black fuel oil. I can still see it, smell it. In that moment, I lost my desire to be a scientist (perhaps it had never been very strong, anyway) and instead became an activist: determined, if I could, to strike at the root of the problem and not just study the symptoms.
Deus ex machina?
Some years ago I wrote a few words for Positive News about the film that had had the greatest influence on my life. My answer, without hesitation, was Local Hero, a whimsical comedy that challenged the yuppie values of the 1980s with a perfectly observed wit that’s still sharp after nearly forty years. (In an interesting coda, Local Hero was revived as a musical at the Lyceum in Edinburgh last year, its rehearsals coinciding with the Oil Club dinner. We invited Mark Knopfler, who composed the music for both film and musical, to the Rig Rebellion party but he didn’t show.)
The story—though if you haven’t seen it, you must—goes like this: A Texas oil man is sent to buy an entire Scottish village as the site for a refinery. The residents, smelling the petrodollars, are only too keen to sell up. Only Ben, a hermit living in a self-built shack, refuses to sell. To him, the idea of putting a price tag on his beach is a giant joke.
The film ends (spoiler alert!) with a somewhat disappointing deus ex machina: the big boss of the oil company arrives in a helicopter, falls in love with the place, and orders his underlings to build the refinery closer to the markets.
Well, I guess they did that. And from the machine there came forth a terrible god. Lately, at night, from Edinburgh you can see, all the way across the Firth of Forth, the flaring at Mossmorran, the Shell/Exxon gas plant in Fife: an egregious example of the Scottish fossil fuel industry which has been poisoning the local community for decades, but which of late seems to have become more blatant than ever. And I’m thinking: how much closer to home, how much more obvious, does it have to be, before we’re ready to face up to our addiction to oil?
Robert Alcock is an eco-designer, builder, writer, father, Zen animist, and activist. After 18 years based in northern Spain, where he and his partner created Abrazo House ecological learning centre, he now lives with his family in Edinburgh, where he mostly makes mischief with XR Scotland. His writing has appeared in Dark Mountain, The Land Magazine, Permaculture, The Lancet, Bella Caledonia and The Ecologist, as well as in two self-published books.
Act Now: Support the Mossmorran Action Campaign – https://mossmorran.org.uk/
XR Scotland’s October Rebellion continues until October 31st. It includes a wide variety of actions around three general themes: “Make the Connections,” highlighting the links between government, fossil fuel and finance; “Make it Real”, to make the Climate Citizens Assembly for Scotland more empowered and effective; and “Wildlife and Land Reform Rebellion,” a peaceful action asking the Scottish Government to put a stop to the killing of Scotland’s wildlife. Find our more and get involved: https://xrscotland.org/rebellion/scotland-rebellion-2020/