- Pronunciation: bla-kaid-ee-a (blɒ:keɪdɪə)
- Part of Speech: Noun
- Provenance: Activism
- Example: The machine made its way across the stark landscape, grinding a series of earthen scars into decimated habitats. Yet the people who had assembled adjacent to the site were more than mere witnesses to the devastation; they were there to bring it to a halt. They were no more than a score, standing in stark contrast to the sheer tonnage of heavy equipment and the intersection of private security and law enforcement on site to keep the peace. One by one, the members of the assembly linked arms and snaked their way across the path of the leviathan. It belched smoke and churned dust as it proceeded toward them, but the human chain obstructed the road and forced the machine operator to halt his progress. The authorities attempted to remove the activists, who were linked together with a bricolage of ropes, wires, and concrete that would take hours to disentangle. Meanwhile, another protest camp was forming a few hundred feet down the road, preparing to do the same. Welcome to Blockadia.
Modern society is marked by a thirst for fossil fuels. To continue to obtain these resources, it becomes necessary to drill deeper, pump harder, and transport fuels across greater distances over precarious terrain. Communities and ecosystems alike are inevitably affected by these activities, and sometimes these impacts precipitate a tipping point sufficient to spark resistance. A prominent example is the Keystone XL pipeline, which was planned to connect the bitumen tar sands in Alberta, Canada, to a junction point in Steele City, Nebraska, and then to refineries in Texas and elsewhere. Its construction has been dogged by controversy, and in 2011 and 2012 a mounting activist campaign to disrupt its completion expanded to engage larger environmental and climate issues as well as Native American objections over sovereignty and land rights. Numerous protests and demonstrations at the national level were launched by indigenous and climate justice activists in Washington, D.C., in an attempt to convince lawmakers and the Obama administration to reject plans to complete the pipeline. These actions included rallies, marches, civil disobedience, and other forms of symbolic nonviolence focusing on government officials. As a result of this pressure, President Obama rejected approval of the Keystone XL pipeline in 2015, only to have his decision reversed by President Trump in 2017.
The struggle over the Keystone pipeline represented a watershed moment in the trajectory of modern North American environmental activism. Concurrently, the grassroots movement Idle No More was founded by three First Nations women in Canada in December 2012, prompting a series of actions drawing together issues of sovereignty, environmental preservation, and social justice. In 2013 Melanie Jae Martin and Jesse Fruhwirth highlighted the emergence of local resistance to pipelines and related projects, including the use of nonviolent direct action as a tool. Their article, “Welcome to Blockadia” (constituting the first use of the term in print), valorized Blockadia as “a place where the future of the environmental movement is being negotiated.” Three particular actions were cited as examples of the concept: a march to a site along the Keystone pipeline route to kick off a campaign against its construction; a demonstration that involved “storming” the corporate offices of the pipeline’s primary architect; and a “tree-sit” along the pipeline’s planned construction path. These actions were decentralized yet focused on the same extraction project, representing a convergence of tactics undertaken by a diverse network of participants. As Martin and Fruhwirth observe, this confluence captured the essence of the term: “These actions represent the spirit of Blockadia—a vast but interwoven web of campaigns standing up against the fossil fuel industry and demanding an end to the development of tar sands pipelines.”
Martin and Fruhwirth cited numerous factors that established Blockadia as a new paradigm in mainstream North American environmentalism, including “the normalization of direct action; the involvement of rural and indigenous groups along with more typical ‘activists’; and the ability of tar sands extraction to motivate even those who tolerated conventional oil pipelines.” They concluded that the rise of Blockadia was “building a unified front” within the environmental movement—and they contended that by doing so, it was “making the struggle potentially winnable despite the steep odds against it.” The rationale was that Blockadia not only offered an opportunity to block specific projects but also could radicalize environmentalists, “with historically marginalized people stepping into the forefront of the movement, and historically privileged groups fighting for rights they once took for granted.” Given the importance of these issues and the diversification of the actors involved, these convergent factors helped prompt greater awareness of “the intertwined nature of social justice and environmental issues” and, critically, was inspired by the “active engagement of people in the frontline communities.”
After the term’s introduction, activist and author Naomi Klein began applying the concept more widely, likewise attributing its coining to “the movement against the Keystone XL Pipeline in Texas [by] the people who are blocking the fossil fuel projects with their bodies and in the courts and in the streets.” In a 2014 Democracy Now! interview, Klein characterized Blockadia as “transnational space, roving space”; in her popular book This Changes Everything (2014), she reinforced the notion that Blockadia “is not a specific location on a map but rather a roving transnational conflict zone that is cropping up with increasing frequency and intensity” to confront extractive projects. What unifies these actions is the industrial impetus to continue mounting deeper environmental incursions through more unconventional and riskier means of pursuing profit. Blockadia might be viewed as a parallel set of interventions, going deeper as the stakes and scale of the challenges escalate, and doing so through riskier and less conventional methods.
The range of shared tactics being utilized—including “packing local council meetings, marching in capital cities, being hauled off in police vans, even putting their bodies between the earth-movers and earth”—is mirrored by the diversity of the actors involved, who generally “look like the places where they live, and they look like everyone: the local shop owners, the university professors, the high school students, the grandmothers.” Inspired by indigenous activists around the globe, contextualized within the unique geographies of local communities, and informed by the successful historical examples of nonviolent social change, Blockadia draws our gaze to the critical struggles of our time, which threaten to impinge on our “collective survival” as beings dependent on access to healthy soil, clean air, and fresh water. Blockadia isn’t merely about better access to resources or securing narrow rights. It also calls into question the baseline operations of the dominant political and economic paradigm. In this sense, Blockadia is the space between the world as we find it and the world as it should be.
Blockadia thus can be viewed as both a response to environmental damage and a collective survival strategy manifested in particular places by diverse peoples. Blockadia emerges at the same moment that ecological thresholds of biodiversity and climate stability are being approached, regulatory firewalls are in danger of being breached, and life-giving capacities are being damaged on a global scale. As such, Blockadia merits a place in the lexicon of the Anthropocene, with its direct applicability to movements focusing on climate change, environmental degradation, and the impacts of these forces on ecosystems and human communities alike. This isn’t simply a political or economic movement, or even primarily a cultural or ethical contest. Rather, it makes an existential intervention that demands a future, reflective of the mantra “Respect existence, or expect resistance.” It might be said that Blockadia is what the world looks like when ordinary people are called to extraordinary measures. When the mechanisms of governance and oversight have failed them, people can be compelled to utilize the potent mechanisms of collective action and civil resistance, sometimes with their bodies as the vehicle for their message.
More than simply comprising a set of tools or techniques for organizing and promoting change, Blockadia indicates a state of mind that fosters both a critique of stratified distributions of power and a reinvigoration of the responsibility and ability to confront them. The invocation of the term is consistent with emerging methods of movement organizing that are ostensibly decentralized yet also unified in their emphasis on redressing the structural factors that undergird contemporary crises, serving to highlight the need for urgent action as an antidote to complicity and complacency. Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org and a leading climate advocate, goes so far as to view this struggle through the lens of a war that must be won if humankind is to survive. In waging it, we may discover a capacity to resist and struggle as well as a renewed spirit of engagement and commitment to being the architects of a better future.
Yet even as we look ahead to a world animated more by creativity than calamity, we are reminded of the lessons of the past. Civil disobedience has been deployed as an instrument of environmental change for decades, but the range of actors and the scope of action are important additions. As Sarah Tory notes, this movement isn’t “just about fighting the next pipeline project or coal terminal, nor is it driven solely by West Coasters’ climate change concerns.” Instead, Blockadia is the leading edge of a “swelling tide of calls for indigenous rights,” bringing forth “a renewed emphasis on social justice to the environmental movement.” The demonstrations and encampments against the Dakota access pipeline at Standing Rock, North Dakota, manifested this convergence of lessons from the past, struggles in the present, and visons of and for the future. Standing Rock galvanized contemporary organizing by advancing the merger of sociopolitical and environmental concerns. It also marks a potential passageway through the liminal region between the volatility of today and a more inspired tomorrow in which humankind finds its fullest expression as part of natural processes rather than as their antagonists. Blockadia isn’t on the map; it is the map, showing us a path forward, together.
The linkages being forged in these moments are potent mechanisms for connecting our histories and struggles, and for “jumping scale” from local interventions to global networks of resistance. Assessing the legacy of Standing Rock as the campaign continued despite political setbacks, Sarah van Gelder observes that “a revolution in values and culture is rippling out across the country and the world,” animated by changes in consciousness and reformulations of power. Along with the rising challenges engendered by the Trump administration and others with a similar penchant for climate denial and rights deprivations, a new era of resistance has emerged, grounded in a justice-oriented perspective that calls on environmentalism “to defend a living world that is under assault at every point, from the global climate to the most vulnerable communities.” In this formulation, ecology is a practice as well as a body of knowledge, and politics are necessarily proactive. “Economic power, racial inequality, and the struggles of indigenous peoples are not optional or supplemental,” writes Jedediah Purdy. “They are at the heart of the work.” Blockadia is as mundane as how we navigate daily life, and as visionary as who gets to decide.
In his pointedly crafted collection Once in Blockadia, poet and activist Stephen Collis reminds us that “our selves,” “the ones we have been waiting for,” are the architects of “other possible futures.” Like a beacon in the dark, “we are engines of change, component parts, aqueducts,” reaching “back in time and forward in time, lifting materials from the forest to be a barrier to human stupidity.” In this lyrical vision, we seek “plausible futures” in a moment of profound uncertainty and rampant change, finding ourselves at a crossroads where “time and growth” seem to diverge (with the former running out while the latter seeks to expand). Here, “paths emerge” toward a future that is perhaps “cleaner” in its production and consumption yet will also be turbulent from the impacts already accrued—ultimately yielding a storyline in which “environment play” (in which attitudes and actions are simultaneously reoriented) helps “shape the turbulence” in such a way that “tomorrow’s world might navigate the inevitable.” In this sense, Blockadia doesn’t posit that we can or will avert cataclysm but rather that we rededicate ourselves to surviving it.
Blockadia points toward a world in which people find themselves bombarded by seemingly insurmountable environmental and sociopolitical crises yet nonetheless choose to forge ahead with a spirit of determination and possibility. As a conceptual touch point for bringing these forces into sharper focus, Blockadia offers a nascent synergy of attitudes and actions, of values and visions, of righteous rage and eternal optimism—core elements for reconnecting humankind to the overarching web of life, and for sustaining the life-giving properties of ecosystems that make human societies possible at all. The essence of Blockadia is more than simply imagining a better future; it entails remembering the lessons of history and developing tools to resist sociopolitical injustice and ecological degradation in the present.
2. Martin and Fruhwirth, “Welcome to Blockadia!”
4. “Naomi Klein on the People’s Climate March and the Global Grassroots Movement Fighting Fossil Fuels,” Democracy Now!, September 18, 2014, https://www.democracynow.org/; Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014), 254.
5. Klein, This Changes Everything, 254.
6. Klein, This Changes Everything, 255.
7. For example, see Will Steffen, Katherine Richardson, Johan Rockström, et al., “Planetary Boundaries: Guiding Human Development on a Changing Planet,” Science 347, no. 6223 (2015): 1259855.
10. Compare Patrick Bond, “Challenges for the Climate Justice Movement: Connecting Dots, Linking Blockadia, and Jumping Scale,” EJOLT Report 23: Refocusing Resistance for Climate Justice, 2015, http://www.ejolt.org/.
13. Purdy, “Environmentalism Was Once a Social-Justice Movement.”
14. Stephen Collis, Once in Blockadia (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2016), 17–18.
15. Collis, Once in Blockadia, 41–55.