Radical direct action may be the only way to prevent environmental catastrophe

Extinction Rebellion protesters in London last month. Image: Getty.

Climate change, deforestation, widespread pollution and the sixth mass extinction of biodiversity all define living in our world today – an era that has come to be known as “the Anthropocene”. These crises are underpinned by production and consumption which greatly exceeds global ecological limits, but blame is far from evenly shared.

The world’s 42 wealthiest people own as much as the poorest 3.7bn, and they generate far greater environmental impacts. Some have therefore proposed using the term “Capitalocene” to describe this era of ecological devastation and growing inequality, reflecting capitalism’s logic of endless growth and the accumulation of wealth in fewer pockets.

As social inequality and ecological breakdown escalate, steady change may no longer be enough to avoid civilisational collapse. Environmentalists cannot rely on timid appeals to power any longer.

Enter ‘radical’ greens

I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know radical environmentalists from numerous groups throughout my doctoral research. I’m especially interested in uncovering their worldviews – how they diagnose the root causes of ecological decline and what motivates them to engage in often high-risk interventions on behalf of the natural world and other species.

They reject human superiority and separateness from other species. They blame such views, in addition to capitalism and endless economic growth, for the dire state of modern ecosystems. Many follow a burning desire for a more viable and inclusive future for all.

Notable radical green groups include Earth First!, Extinction Rebellion, the Hambacher forest occupation, and Sea Shepherd.

Early Earth First! activists in the US sat in trees and dismantled tractors to prevent old-growth forests from being felled. For years, Sea Shepherd vessels successfully intervened and protected countless whales from Japanese whalers in the Southern Ocean. However, last year they ended their anti-whaling campaign due to, among other things, advancements in military grade technology by the Japanese whaling industry.

Activists have occupied the ancient Hambach forest in Western Germany for a remarkable six years in an ongoing effort to keep coal giant RWE at bay. Many were violently evicted by police recently.

Traditional environmental organisations like the WWF tend to focus on making industrial capitalism more sustainable rather than questioning capitalism itself. The radical green movement was born in response to the perceived inability of these mainstream environmental organisations to curb ecological decline. They advocate direct action in the form of civil disobedience, blockades, tree-sits, and even the dismantling of machinery for halting ecological destruction.


The resurgence of the ‘Green Scare’

Criminalising and repressing non-violent activists could fatally delay an effective response to climate change. In the UK, anti-fracking activists were arrested recently after blocking a convoy delivering equipment to the Preston New Road fracking site in Lancashire. They were initially given excessive prison sentences but were eventually released.

Political theorist Steve Vanderheiden referred to such incidents in his 2005 article on the “Green Scare”. The “Green Scare” at its height in the mid-2000s saw the US government mount full-scale persecution of environmental activists. The FBI classed radical environmental groups such as the Earth Liberation Front as the nation’s lead domestic terrorist threat, even though it never targeted living beings.

Even the legal definition of “terrorism” was altered to include property destruction. This sought to target radical greens and their attacks against ecologically harmful infrastructure. Lengthy prison sentences and fines befell “eco-terrorists” caught engaging in direct action deemed threatening to economic interests.

These are desperate times. We’ve lost a staggering 60 per cent of monitored vertebrate life within just 40 years. Climate change will endanger millions through disease, extreme weather, starvation, and rising seas.

Occupying trees or blockading a road to a fracking site is clearly justified resistance during times of widespread injustice. These are the ideas that environmental protectors are attempting to bring to the forefront.

As George Monbiot noted, a “hopeless realism” in the form of piecemeal “tinkering around the edges” has led us to our present predicament. Similar approaches simply won’t fix the mess. Radical responses – direct action and mass political mobilising – might be our only hope for building the better world that is still within our reach.

The Conversation

Heather Alberro, Associate Lecturer/PhD Candidate in Political Ecology, Nottingham Trent University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.