Schmelzer, similarly, noted the play present in the actions. “People bring plants and plant them in the coal mines. There’s a lot of laughing. People really have a good time.” Schmelzer added dryly after a pause, “Some get hit by the police, and they don’t have a good time.”
The Situationists planned dérives to play around in, and better understand, urban space. And aren’t coal mines part of urban space? Coal has shaped our cities and powered global urbanization. So, the coal mine is an excellent site for a dérive.
Though actions like these can be fun, their goals are practical: to register dissent against the fossil fuel industry, and encourage leaders to invest in renewables. And yet, even if they succeed in shutting down a coal mine or power plant for a day or two, organizers acknowledge that it’s mostly a symbolic action.
Selj Balamir, a designer and organiser for the Climate Games and Fossil Free Culture Netherlands, has thought a lot about the messaging behind these actions. “We need to make something that’s impossible to look away from, create something with a visual impact. Ultimately, what is a mass action if not the greatest form of land art?” Balamir describes another action, Code Rood 2017, targeting Europe’s second largest coal harbor in Amsterdam. “You enter it with 300 people, and you are on another planet. The power of those images is to drag people’s attention to say, ‘look what’s happening in your clean, bike-friendly city.’ It creates an impact that numbers or petitions don’t.”
In doing so, organizers of these festivals of dissent are inspired by the activist practice, popular in the 1990’s, of “culture jamming”. Best represented by Adbusters magazine, the idea is to use advertising, slogans, and imagery of the dominant consumerist culture against itself. For example, “subvertisers” will deface billboards with their own message—one that looks strikingly real but tells a more critical story. This could be as simple as replacing “KFC” with the more astute “FCK”. Really makes you think, right?
Subvertisers and culture jammers also take a page from the Situationists, who used the term “détournement” (rerouting, hijacking) to describe the practice of re-using popular images and phrases as a tool of counter-cultural propaganda. With a slogan like “we are the investment risk!” Ende Gelände inverts the language of speculative capital with a knowing wink.
This kind of performativity isn’t just for the media, it was felt at the actions as well. Angela Drummond (name changed) attended her first climate camp in 2008, at Kingsnorth coal-fired Power Station in Kent. The goal was to shut down the station for a day. At the time, environmental protest camps were seen as a significant threat by the UK police. So Drummond found herself in what felt like a war zone: helicopters overhead, 4 a.m. police raids, violent arrests, stop-and-search pens. It became a bit of a dance between the protestors and police: “I sort of think that the whole thing was strangely performative: if the police wanted to enter, they could have done so.” For Drummond, the sense of being besieged “made engaging with the camp seem like the most imperative thing. Even though in many ways the camp was a horrible place to be, it was also one of my fondest memories, because it generated a sense of meaningful united action.”
The action Drummond participated in was, from its very conception, an absurdity. “My first encounter with climate activism was watching a short promotional video. It said something like ‘Kingsnorth Power Station. We will shut it down.’ It was really exhilarating, and I thought, this looks like fun. The whole camp was about shutting it down. There was a lot of performance and pretense. No one actually knew how to shut down a power station. It just became a myth that there was a big red button, we’d have to search for it, and just hit it. In the handbook, there was a drawing of the big red button: ‘this is what you need to press.’ That was literally the plan. Unsurprisingly, we didn’t get into the power station, and no one managed to find the big red button. It was an action built on a joke.”
Yet, despite their close affiliations, these ecological warriors seem to go much further than the culture jammers. Balamir explicitly draws a distinction between the two: “Culture jamming was a response to the extreme sophistication of marketing that popped up in the ’90s. It largely failed, with the exception of Occupy Wall Street. It made me realize that either we see these tactics in small scale and only occasionally succeed in disrupting anything, or we have to try to scale up our ambitions. Low-key propaganda is one thing, but our goals are of creating a political crisis on climate.” We could, instead, call it “economy jamming”.
In 1972, André Gorz used the term décroissance to describe the need for a total material reduction of resource use, if we want to maximize wellbeing. A prominent French philosopher in the 1960s, Gorz had been deeply affected by the events of 1968, realizing that desire and aesthetics often drive social movements, and that the state and highly bureaucratic unions were ill-equipped to address alienation at the core of society and the mounting ecological problems of his day.
In the early 2000s, a small group of French intellectuals like Serge Latouche revived the word décroissance and turned it into a movement slogan. Since then, there have been organized six international Degrowth conferences with thousands of attendees.
From the start, the word was intended as a provocation, a response to the unexamined assumption that economic growth is always good, and that global sustainable development must follow the same model around the world. Paul Aries called it a “missile word” and a “political weapon”; Latouche called it a “symbolic challenge”, a subversive term with the intention to make people pause and question taken-for-granted assumptions.