Last Thursday morning, one southeast Portland resident said she woke up to find the tires on her SUV were flat. A leaflet attached to her car door explained why the perpetrators did it: according to local news outlets KOIN and KGW, a climate activist group called the Tyre Extinguishers have claimed responsibility. (Some people also went on a big tire-deflating spree in northeast Portland in October, but no group claimed responsibility for that.)
The ‘Tyre Extinguishers’ (or TX for short) is the name given to an informal group of climate advocates around the world who have decided to engage in direct climate action by making it inconvenient to drive a gas-guzzling SUV. This group first sprouted up in Europe (hence the British spelling of ‘tire’) and has migrated to the USA in recent months. According to the group’s website, their mission is to “make it impossible to own a huge polluting 4×4 in the world’s urban areas.”
The woman whose SUV tires were deflated is named Nicole Driscoll, who told reporters she was in “emergency mode” when she realized her mode of transportation was temporarily out of commission until AAA could come fix the problem.
“I support activism, but this is not the right way,” she said. “Don’t mess with people’s property.”
I understand that Driscoll was frustrated to have her morning derailed. But the way local media framed this story leaves out a lot of context in favor of sensationalism about crime. And at a time when the impacts of the climate crisis are becoming more and more dire for people around the world, especially in poorer countries with negligible greenhouse gas emissions compared to the United States, this framing is irresponsible and anti-intellectual. It takes for granted the idea that the comfort of middle class and wealthy people is the most important issue facing our society – the idea that got us into this crisis in the first place.
The reason people are turning to direct action tactics like letting the air out of neighborhood gas-guzzlers in the middle of the night is because nothing else has worked.
“Governments and politicians have failed to protect us from these huge vehicles,” the TX website states. “Politely asking and protesting for these things has failed. It’s time for action.”
Scientists have been politely but emphatically explaining the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions in order to stop apocalyptic global warming for the better part of 50 years. They showed politicians and corporate leaders the potential for an easier, more comfortable transition toward renewable energy that is now impossible due to the scale of what we’re dealing with. Even protesters like Greta Thunberg, who is essentially the face of the international climate movement, advocate for diplomacy over direct action. Still, people are so scared of a life without fossil fuels they will use any excuse to ignore these messages. At what point do climate activists get up off the ground and realize Lucy is not going to stop pulling the football out from under our feet?
In the Twitter replies to the KGW story about Driscoll’s SUV (the reporting seems most concerned with the well-being of the inanimate object), people are sounding the alarm about how protest tactics like these will only alienate people from the climate movement.
“This type of performance theater is a massive turnoff. Even to folks who may sympathize with their sentiment,” one person on Twitter said.
But this is a fundamental misunderstanding about the Tyre Extinguishers’ strategy that even people who support the movement fail to understand. These activists are smart enough to know that the kind of people who become hysterical about things like this were never going to join them in the first place. If someone claims to care about and understand the magnitude of the climate crisis, their support for protesters should not be so fragile it could deflate as fast as the tires on a Jeep Grand Cherokee.
The goal of actions like this is not to gain popularity and attract more people to the climate movement. The goal make it so annoying to own a needlessly huge car or truck that people will just stop buying them.
While I think news coverage of these events should be far more nuanced, the protesters wanted the news to cover this. They’re not going out in the middle of the night to deflate people’s tires just for fun – they’re obviously trying to make a point.
Other people make the point that individuals aren’t responsible for the climate crisis and protesters should “go after the private jets and military vehicles” instead. This is a common argument to defend oneself from criticism about living beyond a reasonable carbon footprint and is very rarely used in good faith. As we point out quite often on this site, personal transportation contributes massively to overall greenhouse gas emissions, in Oregon and across the country. Of course private jets and military vehicles should be the subjects of criticism, but who said we can’t walk and chew gum at the same time?
The biggest indictment of people who make so much hullabaloo over a situation like what happened to Driscoll is that the language they use shows a fundamental lack of understanding about the fact that other people are suffering in far worse ways than inconvenience. Here’s what I want to ask people worked into a tizzy about “property damage”: what about all the land currently being destroyed in floods, wildfires and droughts across the world? What about people who are dying in heat waves in India – or on Portland’s very own streets? What about the livelihoods of the children who have been killed by people driving ridiculously large SUVs and the parents who now must cope with that loss for the rest of their lives? How could you possibly complain about being late to work under these circumstances?
Oh, and one quick tip: if you wake up to find your SUV out of commission, ask someone who relies on active transportation to help you figure out a new route to work. I assure you that anyone who rides the bus or bikes to get around the city has dealt with their share of annoyances preventing them from getting where they need to be on time.
I do not condone property damage. But we need to think about the crimes perpetrated against all of humanity, especially the most vulnerable among us, by the fossil fuel industry and people who have bought into it. I acknowledge that having your morning disrupted is inconvenient, but Al Gore told you this was going to be inconvenient almost 20 years ago. We’ve waited far too long to be arguing about civility.
The Tyre Extinguishers specifically ask people to “avoid cars clearly used for people with disabilities, traders’ cars (even if they’re large), minibuses and normal-sized cars.” I think this is important to keep in mind when criticizing the movement.