The Tyre Extinguishers have made it to Tāmaki Makaurau. On May 7th the media reported that residents of Sandringham found their SUVs with tyres deflated. A note on their windshield read, among other things, that their vehicle is a “disaster for the climate”.
Like many other advocates, my initial response was along the lines of “ew, people are going to persecute us for this, this is bad” and “we need to change systems, not individuals”.
But the Tyre Extinguishers became a brain-worm for me. There are many reasons to give them a measured response.
One, because of how much advocate-versus-advocate disagreement this incited. Is it good activism? Is it bad activism? Most people say it’s bad.
Two, there might be data on whether it works, given that this has been occurring for some time overseas.
Three, because climate change is coming for us like right now, yesterday, tomorrow, and all the time — and the status quo is not working. Political incrementalism is one of the greatest barriers to climate action. Our calls for system change are not moving fast enough.
I am not associated with the Tyre Extinguishers, I haven’t met them, and I’ll endeavour to present both sides fairly. That is — the sides of “this protest action is bad” vs “this protest action is good, actually”. I have no interest in arguing whether or not owning an SUV is bad–there are plenty of resources available online that make these arguments better than I can.
Let’s go back to 2007
The claims of the Tyre Extinguishers felt oddly familiar, like I’d heard them before. But where? Turns out, it’s an essay published in the London Review of Books way back in 2007, ‘Warmer, warmer’ by John Lanchester. The Tyre Extinguishers cite this article as a source of inspiration on their Twitter.
In Lanchester’s essay, he writes that:
It is strange and striking that climate change activists have not committed any acts of terrorism. After all, terrorism is for the individual by far the modern world’s most effective form of political action, and climate change is an issue about which people feel just as strongly as about, say, animal rights. This is especially noticeable when you bear in mind the ease of things like blowing up petrol stations, or vandalising SUVs.
In cities, SUVs are loathed by everyone except the people who drive them; and in a city the size of London, a few dozen people could in a short space of time make the ownership of these cars effectively impossible, just by running keys down the side of them, at a cost to the owner of several thousand pounds a time.
Say fifty people vandalising four cars each every night for a month: six thousand trashed SUVs in a month and the Chelsea tractors would soon be disappearing from our streets. So why don’t these things happen? Is it because the people who feel strongly about climate change are simply too nice, too educated, to do anything of the sort? (But terrorists are often highly educated.) Or is it that even the people who feel most strongly about climate change on some level can’t quite bring themselves to believe in it?”
The recall for this essay was pretty strong, these words seared into my brain the first time I came across them.
Lanchester goes on to discuss the psychological resistance to respond to climate change in comparison with the years before the Second World War. That people preferred to appease rather than act. It is a worthy but harrowing read, knowing that these words come from 2007, and 15 years later, we’re still playing the same show tunes.
Climate advocates are always fighting burnout. It sucks to try to play organisations and governments at their own game, only to see these things change at a glacial pace. Is it any wonder that people are asking these questions–why don’t we try other means of making change? Whilst others say–your methods are making my methods even harder, please stop it.
We don’t have one method to solve climate change. If we did, we’d have saved the world already. Instead, we have to pull every lever just to see what sticks.
The problem with reactionaries
The discourse on the Tyre Extinguishers immediately made me think of a regular topic with other cycling advocates.
Is breaking the road rules, as a cyclist, a bad thing for cycle advocacy?
Many people say yes. Rule-breaking makes my advocacy more difficult, because drivers love to complain about how cyclists run red lights and break the rules. When we talk to people about cycling, they say that cyclists are greedy, entitled middle-class lycra wankers (even though the data says otherwise). They’ll come and harass us on the internet over this.
Others say no. It doesn’t matter if we cyclists break the rules, because a vocal minority will find perfectly legal things to persecute us on anyway. That could be by:
- holding them up by coming to a complete stop at a stop sign,
- taking the lane where it’s safest to do so,
- riding two abreast,
- wearing clothing that isn’t a high-vis vest,
- being allocated any amount of government funding,
- or…. just existing.
I’m in the second camp. Cyclists break road rules because it’s safer . For example, the Idaho Stop is a law in some states in the US that allows cyclists to treat stop signs as give-way signs, and red lights as stop signs. A year after it was came into law it was found that this reduced the number of car-vs-cyclist injuries by 14.5%.
Cyclists are making a performance of abiding to rules not designed for us, and policing others to do the same. If anything, it serves car drivers’ in believing that we are Good Little Cyclists that exist on their terms only, whilst making our experiences more dangerous.
We do know that a few vocal haters can make a big difference, especially if they are executive bureaucrats at a transport organisation, commentators in the media, or politicians.
There are reasonable arguments to say that to enact change, we must play those people at their own game — through lobbying, communication strategies, and empathy. Advocates are stressed and stretched thin, and stirring up bad press can kill a campaign (for example: the mis-direction that the Auckland Harbour Bridge was a protest of privileged white men from the central suburbs, who wanted to ride their bike wherever they please).
Despite the Tyre Extinguishers’ clear statement that they do not target workers’ vehicles or vehicles belonging to disabled people, the bad faith whataboutisms on Twitter begin immediately — what if the driver is disabled? What if they are a first responder going to an emergency?
A subset of the population will always complain about climate change action, no matter what appeasement offers. Anti-change arguments need not be as nuanced as ours, as they target the basic needs of humans: comfort, safety, and financial security. Don’t you want your children to be safe when you drive them to school? If those Greens get their way you’ll lose your lifestyle?
This adds to the complexity of getting people to believe and like climate strategies, when they aren’t the most convenient in the short term (if they were, we’d be doing them already).
We also know that asking the public if they would like to make concessions on behalf of climate change does not work. A recent EECA survey found that while 70% of people would change their behaviour to mitigate climate change, only 40% believed that driving less is impactful to the climate. Abstract change is acceptable, but people would like to not know about change that would affect their day-to-day lives.
Unlike other approaches, direct action does not care if you like it or not.
Extinction Rebellion has received a lot of hate by the British public in the past, but a Sky survey found that while XR were the most hated group (with 44% disagreement), they were far ahead of other groups with 57% of people surveyed being able to recall the group’s purpose and key messages.
Direct action doesn’t care about your feelings
Something that stops ordinary people from taking action like this is the belief that people in power are going to change, but we need to get people to realise that they’re not.
The premise of traditional, incremental advocacy is that our leaders are capable of making the change we need within systems that currently exist. Direct action says that those systems have failed, and for the sake of the greater good, do what you can to enact that change.
The Tyre Extinguishers reported their first victory on April 4th, 2022. An article in UK newspaper The Telegraph reported that they recommend against buying an SUV to avoid being targeted by climate activists. Whilst praising the fuel efficiency and cost effectiveness of a smaller car.
This isn’t quantitive yet, but it does lend some credibility to The Tyre Extinguishers and John Lancaster’s theory that a few dedicated activists could genuinely move the needle on getting people out of high-emissions vehicles.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the movement has migrated south. The New Zealand government is failing to get people out of large, dangerous vehicles, and are instead encouraging them into a large, dangerous, electric version of the same vehicle. It’s easy to see why people might be feeling like our systems have failed us and that it’s time to take the law into their own hands.
Getting to know respectability politics
As a climate advocate, my area of interest is intersectionality, and these are my usual open questions:
- How can we reach across to diverse groups of people to access climate justice?
- How do issues of fascism, capitalism and white supremacy serve to perpetuate the climate crisis?
Respectability politics is a term and theory coined by Professor Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, in her book Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920. The theory goes that marginalized groups are pressured to act in ways that mimic the dominant group as a strategy to ‘earn’ more rights within the framework of the dominant group’s idea of what is acceptable.
Respectability politics argues–why are you withholding our rights when we are actually all the same?
For example, as a transmasculine person, it is tempting to try to pass as a cisgender man. This helps secure more respect from strangers when using public spaces (like avoiding the side-eye in a gendered public bathroom), even though I’d prefer to look however I like. That’s bad, because it’s essentially putting queer people back into closets, instead of progressing our rights.
For people of colour respectability has a long history within activism, politics and media. Defining and redefining modern Blackness without the white gaze has been an important movement: waging the war for equity on the basis of sameness is impossible — because equity is not exclusionary or oppressive (if you’re interested in reading more, I recommend this online copy of SOULS journal. It says it all much better than a white queer ever can).
While climate activists aren’t oppressed in the same way that BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ or disability communities are — this should be obvious— the oppression, and aggression, comes from the same root cause: capitalist, patriarchal ideology.
For this reason respectability politics is a deeply flawed strategy. Participants may become respectable, but it’s unlikely that they’ll ever truly be respected, when they are acting within a white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist system designed for oppression. While playing the game seems pragmatic, it’s a game with ever-shifting goalposts that can never be won.
In-group policing is when other members of the same group try to enforce the ‘respectable’ mode of conduct.
This is played out in the disapproving comments against the Tyre Extinguishers group. Instead of focusing on our real enemy (in this case; transport emissions) advocates are now attacking each other and wasting precious time trying to decide whether this is an appropriate form of conduct.
Wasting our own time arguing amongst ourselves helps preserve the status quo. Especially when we say things like “I’m strongly in favour of urgent climate activism but we don’t need UK style twativism”. It starts to feel a lot like “As a cyclist myself, I think that bicycles belong on dedicated trails and not on the road”.
We need to do a better job of examining what we are defending, and who that defence benefits. Are you really defending climate action, or are you defending capitalist, middle-class white civility?
Why should we defend that civility, when communities suffering from the effects of the climate crisis are not given the same civility in return?
Does this in-group respectability politic help perpetuate climate advocacy as a place for people who are stale, male and pale, at the expense of the voices of people belonging to marginalized communities?
Maybe the Tyre Extinguishers are the wrong way to go, but we don’t know that for sure yet, and it’s certainly going to be a more useful data point than scolding other climate activists. I’m following along with keen interest.