Stop Fossil Fuels

Why stop fossil fuels?

Hurricane Harvey — Houston, TX, US — August 2017

Hurricane Harvey — Houston, TX, US — August 2017

Climate change is wreaking devastation now, and will get much worse. The idea of a “carbon budget” for the coming decades is delusional; we’re already deep in carbon debt.

To be explained…

Fossil fuel pollution and climate change kill humans: more than 6 million annually, and climbing rapidly.

Industral pollution — air, chemical, soil, and occupational — killed 5.5 million humans in 2015, a rate increasing an average 50,000 per year since 1990. (Lancet Commission on pollution and health, figure 7)

As of 2012, climate change killed 400,000 humans each year. Projections are for nearly 700,000 deaths per year by 2030. (DARA Climate Vulnerability Monitor, 2nd ed)

We are in the midst of global ecological collapse, caused and enabled by fossil fuels. Forests, prairies, oceans, and the very web of life are in critical condition.

Fossil fuels destroy landbases at every stage: from extraction to processing to transportation to use to polluting aftereffects.

Massive equipment rips open the ground, leaving behind Appalachian streams buried in the exploded remnants of mountain tops, millions of oil and gas wells devastating land and fragmenting habitat, and the hell on earth that is the Alberta tar sands — the largest industrial project on earth. Refineries and gas processing plants pollute their environs. Pipelines routinely spill toxic substances, at over 300 “significant” accidents per year in the US alone.

Bayan Obo rare earths mine

Bayan Obo rare earths mine

Worse than the direct environmental harm is the industrial activity fossil fuels make possible. The world has already lost approximately 80% of primary old growth forest, with another acre of natural forest lost every two seconds. Industrial farming converts complex habitats to monocultures for humans, contributes to massive algae blooms, and erodes topsoil at 10-100 times the replenishment rate. Massive open-pit and strip mines create gaping wounds and festering tailings ponds visible from outer space. Industrial operations vaccuum up 80% of annual fish catch, resulting in 84% of ocean fisheries fully exploited, over-exploited or already crashed.

These fossil fueled pressures have brought on a sixth mass extinction and biological annihilation. By 2012, Earth had lost 58% of vertebrate populations, and probably comparable numbers of insects and plants, compared to an already impoverished 1970 baseline. To stop further loss of the wild, we must stop fossil fuels.

Our work is Sisyphean. For each step forward, climate change and the industrial economy push us 10 steps back. Whether your passion is an ecological community, an endangered species, or future generations, we must stop fossil fuels to defend those you love.

Grassroots environmentalists work hard and fight fiercely for the places and creatures we love. We win important battles here and there, but we’re badly losing the overall war. Despite decades of environmentalism, every ecological community across the world is in decline, and climate change threatens each place and species we have been able to protect.

We’re losing because we fight defensive battles, with wins temporary but losses permanent. We may stave off one clearcut or development project or pipeline one year, but the profiteers come back the next year, and the next, and the next, until they get what they want. Once the forest is cut, the land bulldozed, the pipeline in place, there’s no undoing the damage.

There are relatively few of us, so for every one project we try to block, we have to let many others proceed unopposed. For example, in the US, massive grassroots efforts won temporary delays of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines, a combined 2000 miles of planned pipeline expansion. Meanwhile, the US completed 17,000 miles of pipelines from 2009 to 2014, with another 34,000 planned or under construction at the beginning of 2016.

Fosil fuels are at the root of the ongoing threats to the places and people we love. The onslaughts won’t stop until we shift from reactionary defensive actions with temporary victories at best, to strategic offensive battles targeting the root problem.

The environmental movement has worked for decades towards mass awakening, yet nearly everything keeps getting worse. We can’t rely on hope that this pattern will suddenly change.

Much environmental effort has been directed towards convincing individuals to change their values and lifestyles. The strategy seems to rely on hope of reaching a tipping point, at which point a mass transformation will take place to a sane and sustainable way of living. However, though some have responded to calls for change, they remain a tiny minority. All measures of global sustainability are going in the wrong direction. Decades of environmentalism haven’t even slowed the growth of population, consumption, mining, waste, and atmospheric CO2 concentration; all are increasing relentlessly.

In ecological communities such as forests, prairies, and lakes, available energy and food are fully utilized by community members. When we consider the full effects of fossil fuels, it’s clearly a mistake to dig up and burn the carbon sequestered by the earth over millions of years. But fossil fuels are incredibly dense stores of energy, so it’s unsurprising that human individuals will use whatever is available to them, and that our society has developed a full-on addiction. Although a few individuals may choose to forego the easy energy, the majority will happily burn as much as they can, as long as they can.

There’s no evidence of a mass shift in consciousness, and with the world at stake, we can’t afford to pretend otherwise. The only way industrial society will stop burning fossil fuels is if it can no longer get its hands on them.

Renewable energy is growing at unprecendented rates, but isn’t slowing the much faster growth of fossil fuel burn. Green tech is not a solution.

Demand vs Renewables: global energy increase over last seven years

Renewables are only a solution if they actually replace fossil fuels, but as Barry Saxifrage elegantly illustrates, “the new business-as-usual is one in which we keep expanding both renewables and fossil fuels at the same time.” Industrial society is responding to ecological and climate crises not as a rational actor in control over its decisions, but instead as an energy addict using as much as it can get, whether clean or dirty.

From 2009 to 2016, total world energy consumption increased 15%. New renewables supplied less than 30% of the growth in demand, with the great majority met by fossil fuels. (If you don’t consider hydroelectric dams which kill rivers and displace humans to be “renewable,” then more than 45 of the new demand was met by dirty energy.)

We can’t wait for “enough” renewables to be in place before transitioning; we have neither the time to spare, nor assurance that more renewables will even decrease fossil fuel use. Regardless of how many solar panels and wind turbines are installed, we must proactively stop the burning of fossil fuels as quickly as possible.

Paradoxically, energy efficiency increases fossil fuel use. Getting more bang for the buck increases incentive to use resources.

Global energy consumption increase since 1900

Global energy consumption increase since 1900 The Shift Project Data Portal

As with green tech, energy efficiency is only a solution if it actually reduces fossil fuel use. A household with a specific need, such as lighting a room each night, will use less electricity with an efficient LED. But because consumer society has unlimited wants, that same lighting technology colonizes clothing, billboards, and entire building surfaces. Not only does this rebound effect negate conservation, but light pollution soars.

These unintended consequences undermine all such efficiency measures. Despite the technologies and tricks we’ve developed in the last century, global energy consumption has increased exponentially. Clearly, efficiency on its own won’t end our use of fossil fuels. Worse, it may actually amplify their harms, as Richard York illustrates with a simple thought experiment:

Imagine two worlds. In one, cars get 50 miles per gallon; in the other, they use 50 gallons to go a single mile. Which world uses more energy?

In the world with highly inefficient vehicles, humans would have neither the motive nor the means to build houses distant from work and from shopping malls stocked via global supply chains, all connected by cars, roads, and highways. They would instead build societies optimized for walking and local provision of their needs. Paradoxically, the world with efficient cars gives rise (as we see) to a sprawling network of energy hungry machines.

We’re offered efficiency as a way to sidestep fundamental change, but doing “more” while still using every bit of obtainable energy is not a solution. Ending the use of fossil fuels must be primary; efficiency will then play an important role in transition.

Governments have yet to take meaningful action to reduce fossil fuel use, and give no indication that they ever will.

Governmental inaction as carbon mounts up

Governmental inaction as carbon mounts up NOAA and Global Carbon Budget

Through decades of scientific warnings about the dangers of climate change, governments have excelled at forming bodies with official names, holding meetings, encouraging more research, and proudly announcing symbolic agreements. Yet somehow, they haven’t actually cut carbon emissions. Not only did they fail to adopt the precautionary principle as scientists debated just how big a problem global warming could be, but they didn’t take meaningful action even after scientific consensus made the looming catastrophe clear.

The most recent accomplishment, the 2015 Paris Agreement, is non-binding, with hypothetical emissions reductions far in the future. Like the Copenhagen Accord before it, governments have no legal mandate to do anything substantive. Meanwhile, investors are pouring money into a 43% global expansion of coal power capacity; the smart money doesn’t believe governments will put a halt to burning coal any time soon.

We all know that governments take better care of corporations than they do of people. Fossil fuels are the life blood of the industrial economy. We’d be fools to trust that politicians will suddenly decide to do the right thing after all this time; we must shut down fossil fuels ourselves.

Fossil fuels are finite resources, so their use will inevitably decline. But peak oil won’t reduce carbon emissions fast enough.

This and that shockingly frightening statistic…

Fossil fuels bring comforts and elegancies to a minority, but at great cost to everyone. Life will be better in a post carbon world.

“Collapse” sounds scary, but it simply means rapid simplification of a society, and will actually increase quality of life in the long term. Such simplification is unavoidable; our way of life is unsustainable, its complexity dependent on ever increasing supplies of dense energy. Responding to the myriad problems of globalization, bureaucracy, sprawling infrastructure, and empire, many people are proactively working toward collapse in their efforts to localize food, water, building materials, energy, education, economics and decision making.

It’s valuable to build the foundations for local structures now, but they won’t gain much traction until the centralized systems are starved of fossil fuels. States actively suppress efforts which threaten to redistribute power, and economic structures further constrict people’s freedom to explore alternative paths. The lure of shiny trinkets and technological gadgets is difficult to resist until they’re not there.

But the knowledge of how to live sustainably is widely available. As fossil fuel flows slow to a trickle, necessity will blend existing wisdom with new innovations to birth localized solutions. As Tom Murphy writes, we’ll move into a better future:

Expect More: Reading; story-telling; gardening; connection with nature; community; fishing; whittling; lemonade; sitting on the front porch; cross-breezes; seasonal adjustment; blankets; wool socks; sweaters; connection to sunrise/sunset; local governance; mom & pop stores; crafts; goats and chickens; bicycles; train rides; pies cooling on the sill; music; singing and playing musical instruments; rain catchment; canning; craftsmanship; repair; durable goods.

Expect Less: Waiting for airplanes; commuting; abstract/meaningless jobs; Wal-Mart; fast food; strip malls; four-car families; climate change; dominance of banks; capital gains; disposable junk; junk mail; species extinction; minibar charges; traffic jams; identity theft; freeway noise; advertisements; consumerism; faddish gizmos; cheap plastic crap; outsourcing; industrial effluent; credit card debt.

Human population is already in overshoot, and growing. Meanwhile, our impact on global ecology decreases world carrying capacity every day. A crash is inevitable. The sooner we put on the brakes, the gentler the transition.

We’re carrying out an experiment in madness, and it would be great if everyone in the world came to our senses. Aggressive, proactive, unanimous reduction of consumption and population—a managed crash—might just stave off disaster for ecological and human communities. But that’s not the path we’re choosing. Far from competing to most quickly reduce their annual income to a possibly sustainable $3500, the vast majority of humans, understandably, compete for larger slices of the pie which they hope will keep growing. Far from each family contemplating a sustainable global carrying capacity and charting a path to match it, humans are behaving, naturally, like every other species, reproducing to match their current food supply.

Every day, 227,000 humans join the global population. At the same time, fossl fuels undermine the planet’s ability to support even those already here. Industrial development, manufacturing, transportation, farming, fishing, and logging erode topsoil, destabilize the climate, toxify the environment, and collapse populations of fish and wildlife. The sooner we stop fossil fuels, the less they will have carried us into overshoot, and the less wrenching will be our adjustment.

How to stop fossil fuels

Valve Turners shutting down a pipeline

Valve Turners shutting down a pipeline

Industrial society has had decades to transition voluntarily from fossil fuels and their known hazards, but is too addicted to give them up. It’s time for an intervention: we must physically shut off the flows ourselves.

The consequences for humans and non humans are already dire, and getting worse. As a society, we’ve known this for a long time, but haven’t shown an ability to change.

Global fossil fuel burn, 1990 - 2016

The only year in which the world has decreased consumption was 2009, the result of global recession. Unless forced into decline by circumstances out of its control, the economy burns more and more fossil fuels every year. The only timely solution is to force decreases.

Giving up faith in indirect, sanctioned, false solutions—voluntary mass transformation, governmental action, green tech, energy efficiency—frees our imagination. Our work becomes a relatively straight forward exploration of strategy and tactics to physically stop fossil fuels.

The environmental movement has been pursuing a strategy of attrition entirely inappropriate against a system with far greater numbers and resources.

Attrition is a protracted slow struggle, with the goal of wearing down the forces of environmental degradation until they cease to function. We react defensively and oppose one destructive project at a time. But we’re losing. Our occasional victories don’t actually weaken the institutions expanding industrialism; at best we’re merely slowing the rate at which they strengthen.

To begin winning our campaign of attrition, we’d need not only to block all industrial expansion, but to force closure of existing pipelines, power plants, and oil fields. But even if we achieved that, our strategy would still be a failure. Attrition only works if one grinds down the opponent while limiting one’s own gradual losses to acceptable and sustainable levels. But there’s nothing gradual, acceptable, or sustainable about today’s rising CO2 and declining biodiversity. With fossil fuels at the heart of every crisis, and with catastrophe imminent, we must reduce combustion to 10% of 2017 levels, as quickly as possible, a goal unattainable by attrition.

At a tactical level too, we rely on attrition: we file lawsuits, blockade pipelines, and lock down to construction equipment, trying to make a project uneconomical. But multi-billion dollar investments can easily budget to overcome the roadblocks we place, especially when corporations and governments can predict our tactics.

Our work is the very definition of asymmetric struggle. As individuals and as a movement, we must escalate beyond piecemeal attrition.

Over the centuries, military analysts have devised principles of strategy. Though our goal of stopping fossil fuels is unique, we can apply what they’ve learned to our own work.

To stop fossil fuels in this asymmetric struggle, we must employ a strategy of cascading systems failure to disrupt a fragile technological system.

Two quotes by military historian and strategist Liddell Hart summarize our work:

“It should be the aim of grand strategy to discover and pierce the Achilles’ heel of the opposing government’s power to make war.”

“A strategist should think in terms of paralyzing, not of killing.”

The war against the planet, against the global majority of humans, against future generations depends on fossil fuels. We aim to paralyze their infrastructure. To move beyond a strategy of attrition, we must think in terms of systems, flows, nodes, and bottlenecks. We must understand how oil, coal, and gas are extracted, transported, processed, distributed, and burned; and where we can intervene for maximum impact.

Industrial systems withstand the loss of an element or two without experiencing further damage, and quickly repair problems. But these systems are designed for efficiency, not resiliency. When enough critical pieces break, the failures cascade through the system like a series of dominoes, causing more and more elements to fail. Impacts increase exponentially the longer disruptions persist. Under the right circumstances, the whole system grinds to a halt. With follow up actions, it may never restart.

Attrition vs cascading systems failure

These are general trends; specific campaigns may vary.

Characteristic Attrition Cascading Systems Failure
Target type New project in the works Operational infrastructure
Why target chosen Immediate damage caused by project Criticality to the system
Campaign goal Stop this project Stop this piece of infrastructure, plus others dependent on it—trigger domino effect
Initiative Defensive Offensive
Target’s role in system Any Bottleneck / Interconnected node
Number of targets attacked One at a time, isolated Multiple, attacked simultaneously in coordinated, synergistic actions
Targets available Many and interchangeable Few and unique
Tactics Blockades & occupations Hit and run
Goal of actions Delay project completion Damage or destroy infrastructure, and delay or prevent repair
Duration of disruption Shorter Longer
Knowledge of system needed Limited Extensive and deep
Skill, planning, & caution needed Less More
Number of actions & people needed Many more Many less
Suitability for aboveground actionists High Nearly impossible
Suitability for underground actionists High High
Risk of consequences for actionists More, if done openly Less, if done surreptitiously and carefully
System response Reroutes around damage Disproportionately disrupted

Civil disobedience is unsuitable for a strategy of cascading systems failure. But if a campaign has enough people and goes beyond the merely symbolic, sustained blockades or occupations can win some victories of attrition.

Civil disobedience escalates legal opposition such as petitioning, protesting, and filing lawsuits. But as with legal tactics, governments, corporations, and the general public will never permit protestors to disrupt business as usual to the point of triggering cascading systems failure. At best, they’ll tolerate attrition until they can find a relatively clean way to disperse the occupation or blockade.

One-off direct actions have little if any effect on fossil fuel combustion; the system has enough redundancy and buffering to be unaffected by temporary glitches. For civil disobedience to have material impact, not just symbolic, campaigns must maintain disruptions for days, weeks, or longer. Large numbers of people must participate both on the frontlines and in support roles. Media coverage and public sympathy can raise volunteers, but there’s only so much attention to go around. In the US for example, the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines became well known in recent years, while nearly one hundred other projects are nearly unheard of.

The Unis’tot’en Camp in British Columbia is perhaps the most successful example of civil disobedience, blockading the bottlenecked path of multiple pipelines for years. Their legal basis for opposition, combined with widespread grassroots sympathy and support, has made it much more difficult for the government to sweep them aside. Occupations of operational infrastructure can be successful in cases where the local community perceives harm without sufficient benefit, as in Beleme, Nigeria, where for at least five months hundreds of people shut down oil fields producing 45,000 barrels per day.

Before engaging in civil disobedience, consider whether you may in the future want to take action towards cascading systems failure. Carefully read and contemplate the necessary firewall between aboveground and underground activists.

Though similar to civil disobedience, “nonviolent direct action” also includes ecosabotage with its potential to go beyond attrition. Since “nonviolent direct action” lumps together tactics suitable for distinct strategies, we use the term “civil disobedience.”

Ecosabotage allows activists to take the offensive with a strategy of cascading systems failure. It leverages limited resources against sprawling, largely unprotected infrastructure.

Civil disobedience has a noble history in social change movements. Law breakers proudly accept the consequences of their actions, hoping to win hearts and minds for the cause. But we’ll never sway the general public to support the necessary 90% cut in fossil fuel use, so tempering effective action for their sake is counterproductive. Actionists who work underground, striking surreptitiously then melting into the night without governmental reprisal, can fully apply the principles of strategy summarized above.

Unfortunately, though the bravery of the underground actionists is not in question, most ecosabotage to date has been directed toward attrition. Targets usually seem chosen solely to stop the damage they directly cause, or even for symbolic value. When infrastructure is attacked, it’s only in one place at a time, and the disruption is usually quickly repaired.

To shift to a strategy of cascading systems failure, ecosaboteurs could look to militant resisters to learn how they target entire systems of infrastructure.

In the Niger Delta, militant resistance has shuttered 10-40% of the country’s oil production since 2006, an impact unmatched in the history of the environmental movement. The militants use violence, but have saved far more lives than they’ve taken.

Militant resistance provides, by far, the most successful examples of inducing cascading systems failure and stopping fossil fuels. And the best example of militant resistance comes from the oil drenched Niger Delta, where residents suffer the worst effects of pollution and spills: contaminated air, soil and water leaves forests, fields, mangroves and rivers unable to support human or nonhuman life. An estimated 11,000 infants die each year due to on-shore oil spills. Despite immense riches made from oil extraction, the general population doesn’t benefit: a large majority of Nigerians live in poverty, and life expectancy is nearly the lowest in the world.

Decades of nonviolent tactics failed to achieve justice, culminating instead in the Nigerian military regime and Royal Dutch Shell conspiring to execute nine movement leaders in 1995. The resistance movement escalated its tactics in response, by 2006 regularly sabotaging and bombing oil infrastructure and government buildings, kidnapping foreign oil workers for ransom, engaging in guerrilla warfare, and launching surprise attacks using speed boats. Multiple groups have been systematically and accurately selecting targets to completely shut down oil extraction and delay or outright halt repairs.

Militant resistance cut Nigerian crude production by a sustained 200-800,000 bpd since 2006

Militant resistance cut Nigerian crude production by a sustained 200-800,000 bpd since 2006

The militants have killed oil workers and members of government and corporate militaries. However, some rough calculations suggest the militants have saved 500 to 1900 lives per month by shutting down 200,000-800,000 barrels per day of oil extraction, far outweighing the number of lives they’ve taken.

Most moral philosophers would judge that the militant resisters are working for the greater good. But maybe there are ways to achieve cascading systems failure without employing violence.

Stopping fossil fuels doesn’t require violence. It does require that we use our limited resources to target critical infrastructure. We must understand industrial systems and their vulnerabilities.

Critical infrastructure is that on which fossil fuels rely for extraction, transportation, processing, distribution, and combustion. Obvious elements include wells, pipelines, rail lines, roads, storage tanks, refineries, and ports. Less visible SD needn’t rely on militant violence. Big picture target selection. Understand the system. Critical infrastructure: pipelines & rail, electric. Financial, computers, communications …

Careful target selection of specific infrastructure is central to triggering cascading systems failures.

(Bottlenecks, CARVER w/example from manual. Layers of targeting: may decide to shut down a particular coal mining site, which may lead to deciding to shut down a particular portion of the electric grid, which may point to taking out the transformer at a particular substation.)

Governments and corporations won’t willingly permit us to disrupt critical infrastructure. We must use hit and run tactics to trigger cascading systems failure.

As with the principles of strategy summarized above, we can learn from existing military doctrine on tactics and operations. Principles of guerrilla combat are particularly relevant to our own asymmetric struggle:

Get involved

We need people stopping fossil fuels. Broadly, this requires front line activists, loyalty and material support for those front liners, and dissemination of strategy and tactics.

This and that way to get involved…

Front line activists directly stop fossil fuels through nonviolent civil disobedience, ecosabotage, or militant attacks. We need as many people doing this work as we can get.

People working inside the box fit in too.

Most of us can’t be on the front lines for a host of perfectly valid reasons. But we can all provide loyalty and material support to those doing the necessary work.

This and that way to get involved…

Mainstream media will never broadcast how to stop fossil fuels. We need a grassroots of activists and ordinary people spreading knowledge of effective strategy and tactics within their circles, and to new audiences.

This and that way to get involved…

There must be a strict firewall between those working aboveground and those underground. The movement needs people on both paths, but the roles and organizing methods are very different.

People considering participation in civil disobedience should make their decision carefully if they may want in the future to carry out actions towards cascading systems failure. Publicly exposing one’s convictions and willingness to break the law makes one a target for investigations into underground actions.

For example, private security firm TigerSwan surveilled dozens of known protestors following sabotage of the Dakota Access Pipeline, quickly narrowing the suspects to the two women who eventually claimed responsibility for the acts. The two were identified in part due to acts of civil disobedience years before, as well as their recent public activity against DAPL.

Your first choice is your most important: will you work aboveground or underground? Underground activists can and should protect themselves from the start.

This and that way to get involved…

Activists, especially those considering underground action, should become familiar with digital security tools to encrypt communication and remain anonymous when required.

This and that way to get involved…

Security culture is more important than any technical tools. All activists should learn these simple yet powerful guidelines.

This and that way to get involved…

If you can serve on the front lines, the movement needs you.

This and that way to get involved…

If you can help with researching or with spreading our analysis, please join Stop Fossil Fuels in our work.

This and that way to get involved…

Just as our movement must learn from the military’s knowledge of strategy, we as individuals must draw on lessons from the business world to maximize our personal & organizational effectiveness.

This and that way to get involved…