The Last Generation, Scholz, and the Categorical Climate Imperative
actions by Just Stop Oil, die Letzte Generation and others affiliated with the A22-network have kicked off a wide-ranging debate about the question: what is legitimate and effective climate activism? Though, to be sure, societies' (the debate seems to be raging in Germany, the UK, Holland, Spain and probably most countries with a relevant climate movement) response seems to be “we'd like our climate activism ineffective and irrelevant, then it's legitimate”, a position reinforced by increasingly draconian protest laws, a move pioneered at the national level in the Uk, foreshadowed by legislative changes in Germany at the regional level.
Last week, oil was poured on the flames of this debate, when a woman who was injured in a traffic accident on Monday died from her wounds in hospital on friday. Based on false claims made by the Berlin fire brigade, according to which the deterioration of her condition at the site of the accident was exacerbated when an assistance vehicle was delayed by traffic jam in turn caused by a climate blockade organised by the Letzte Generation, both the German right and centre went into full shitstorm-mode, blaming what was first her critical condition, later on her death, on the climate movement, arguing that we'd “claimed our first victim”, and engaged in a genuinely insane (but in the context of the sublimation society we live in, entirely understandable) round of projection, victim-blaming and straight up post-truth politics.
In that volatile situation, I made a really shit move, and tweeted something stupid and disrespectful phrase in a tweet about the victim of the accident, whereupon an enormous shitstorm developed, which of course was not about my stupid tweet, but about drawing a line: until here, you climate criminals, and no further. That shitstorm got a bit out of hand, so I was asked to write about the experience for a local newspaper. Since the text is paywalled, and in German, I've put up a culturally edited and updated version of it, since this debate is one we'll all be facing sooner or later:
how far climate activism?
The Last Generation, Scholz, and the Categorical Climate Imperative
All of a sudden, the conversation has become very serious. We are finally talking about what climate activism is, and what climate policy should actually about: human lives. It is about saving them and ensuring the long-term viability of humanity on this planet. We are talking about the tragic case of a woman whose death is being instrumentalised by those who want to curtail the ability of climate activists to, for wont of a better word, act.
On the morning of Monday, the 31st of October 2022, in Berlin's Wilmersdorf district, a truck runs over and critically injures a cyclist, who dies in hospital four days later. The special-purpose vehicle called to aid in her rescue was delayed by a traffic jam on the A100 - apparently caused by a blockade organised by the Last Generation, a group whose tactics and strategy resemble those of Just Stop Oil and other A22-affiliated groups around the world. While we know now, after a statement by the emergency phyisican who tried to save the woman's life, that the vehicle's delay in no way contributed to her worsening condition, or to her subsequent death, the initially popular framing was that this was the first death caused by the climate movement. That fossil normality had its first martyr.
As a result, all of society is discussing in the most violent terms possible a question we've been sort of debating for the past few weeks, using much weaker symbols and more banal referents, such as as tomato soup on glass frames protecting “ancient master” paintings: in view of the escalating climate catastrophe, is it legitimate to deface, to disturb the symbols of our normality? How far may climate activism go in pursuit of a societally accepted and yet ignored key priority, protecting the global climate and fighting for climate justice? What risks may it take into account, how much may it disturb the normality of our climate-destroying everyday life itself?
Idiot that I can be I chose monday afternoon, a mere hours after the tragic accident, the woman's condition was critical at the time, to comment on the situation in a truly stupid, completely empathy-free manner by – I shudder to repeat my words, but for the sake of intellectual honesty and for context – dismissing this tragic accident in a tweet using the disrespectful words "shit happens". Then I called on the Last Generation not to be intimidated. I've since deleted that tweet and am truly sorry for my disrespect. My thoughts are with her loved ones.
Alas, on twitter, what goes round, comes round, and soon my timeline and inbox were full of messages berating me - correctly and justifiably - for my lack of empathy and respect. Many messages stressed that no human life should ever be put at risk, or devalued as mere collateral damage.
The fact that most of these tweets and messages were themselves extremely disrespectful and lacking in empathy was not surprising, but some of them did hurt. "We've got you!" and "you degenerate faggot" were among the more harmless: I was called “murderer”, tweets suggested I had myself somehow orchestrated the woman's death, death threats abounded This suggests that many commentators themselves did not care about the life of the victim, any more than they care about a Van Gogh or a Monet. Their goal is to delegitimise climate activism. This was probably also the point of the BILD TV (BILD is Germany's leading rightwing tabloid) camera team that ambushed me on my doorstep to trick me into making another stupid statement. Somehow this was scarier than any death threat via Twitter: how did they get my private address - and who else has it?
But back to the debate that actually matters: how far should (may? must? will?) climate activism go in pursuit of its goal? In this conversation, our chancellor (the new one, Olaf Scholz, whose election agitprop framed him as the #climatechancellor) actually said something I broadly agree with. He said that when making political decisions, one must always take such decisions that do not negatively impact anyone else. This principle could be established as a kind of categorical climate imperative: Always act in such a way that your decisions do not endanger others.
Unfortunately, our “externalisation society” (cf. Stephan Lessenich) constantly makes decisions that endanger people's lives: mostly, however, the people thus immediately endangered live in the "global south". Sometimes it also affects us here, whether in the 2021 floods in the Rhineland, that killed 134 people, or in the German road traffic system. As a society, we "accept" these risks, sometimes we try to minimise them. But we accept that several thousand people die every year so that we can get from A to B (last year, that figure stood at 2562). This, too, is a pretty cold calculation, at the end of which people die as, well, as collateral damage.
Climate activism, though, should apparently operate on the basis of the principle that only those actions are legitimate that involve an actual zero percent chance of human lives being lost. No person must ever come to harm during, or as the result of climate protest or action. This is patently absurd, as this principle does not apply to any other major social activity. It applies neither to football nor to partying - the Love Parade took place again last year, although some years back, 21 people died during a stampede at the Love Parade in Duisburg, Western Germany.
So what kind of climate activism is legitimate? A permanently and universally valid answer to that question must forever remain beyond our grasp, because the climate catastrophe clearly constitutes a societal state of emergency. In a state of emergency, actions that would otherwise be unacceptable can become legitimate.
The struggle for climate justice touches upon hard, material interests, on wealth, power and privileges. Our movement seeks to to challenge an a well-dug in and fortified system, fossil capitalism – meaning that an ever growing number of activists will take ever more disruptive action in the global north, against the background of increased opposition (both legal and extralegal) to such activties. As a result, and simply by virtue of the law of great numbers, tragic accidents will occur. But this cannot mean that climate activism from now on means nothing more than organising big, cuddly demonstrations that ask nicely whether the government could possibly finally protect the climate.
That approach didn't work in 2019 at the height of Fridays For Future's popularity, and it would work even less now. German society has understood that fulfilling our Paris commitments would imply a widespread loss of prosperity in this country. Even Martin Luther King and Suffragette Sylvie Pankhurst knew: to achieve fundamental social change, a society's normality must be disrupted. But unlike the normality of this society, climate activism only endangers people in absolutely exceptional cases. Our normality does so every day.