Last Generation’s Arne Springorum: We’re pushing people’s noses into climate crisis
Last Generation’s Arne Springorum: We’re pushing people’s noses into climate crisis
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Regular blockades of the “magistrála” through road cutting across Prague have become a fact of life in the city, incensing some drivers. The protests are aimed at promoting the idea of a 30 kilometre an hour speed limit in the capital and are organised by a climate crisis activist group called Poslední Generace, or Last Generation. I spoke to one of its leading members, Arne Springorum, who is from Germany but has been living in Czechia for three decades.
Many people are concerned about the environment but few go into that field full-time. What was your motivation?
“It’s a step-by-step process, isn’t it [laughs]? I didn’t go into the situation I am in now from one day to the other. I’ve known about the climate crisis since the early ‘90s and had my head in the sand, like everyone else.
“Then when Extinction Rebellion was founded in the UK and I saw the pictures of ordinary citizens getting arrested I realised I am one of them – so I stepped up.”
You are best-known as one of the leading members of Last Generation. Could you explain what the organisation is, and what it does?
“We are a group which is heading into civil resistance to the government, which is a form of protest which is not unheard of. There are ample examples in history, like the suffragettes or the civil rights movement.
“I see the difference with civil disobedience in the fact that you do singular acts of civil disobedience, like with Extinction Rebellion, where we had one big rebellion per year.
“You are always in civil resistance and you are ready to face prison for that.”
“But with civil resistance it’s like one after another. You don’t stop. You are always in civil resistance and you are ready to face prison for that.”
But there are so many ways to protest and to make your voice heard. Why take this approach, which for some people could be considered radical?
“Oh, it is radical [laughs]. Absolutely, it is radical. Because it’s effective. Every day in Prague there are demonstrations and no-one ever hears about them and no-one ever cares, especially not politicians.
“But when we disrupt – and this is one of our main methods, we disrupt – just like Just Stop Oil in England or Letzte Generation in Germany, we disrupt in an unignorable way.
“In that way it becomes a topic for the media, it becomes a topic for society. And that’s the democratic part of it – it then becomes a topic for the politicians, because of society, societal pressure.”
OK, it becomes a topic, but still, what’s the connection between it becoming a topic and you achieving your aims? There’s no guaranteed progression from A to B here.
“Well, if history tells us something, it’s that there is something like a promise. In 1913 the suffragettes broke all the windows in Oxford Street.
“Can you imagine the upset to society? And how 95 or 99 percent of all other British women said, We have nothing to do with these terrible women who are just destroying property? And five years later they got the vote and they are our heroes today.”
For people who don’t know, how specifically is your group protesting?
“We’ve been organising protest marches on the Prague city highway. The funny thing is that we haven’t done anything illegal – we haven’t done civil disobedience this year. Last year we did, but this year we haven’t.
“Because we’ve done it every week, since March 1 we kept repeating it, it’s created an impact on Czech society and the politicians feel the pressure, yes. They feel the pressure to act, which is exactly what we wanted. That’s why we have politicians – they have to act.”
And you are blocking the main road or motorway through Prague?
“No, we are not blocking anything. We’ve had legally announced protest marches and when you march you’re not blocking, right? Blocking for me is something else. We did that last year.”
Well, you’re slowing the traffic to the point where it might as well be blocked, because people are stuck in their cars trying to see what’s going on ahead of them.
“But the city highway as most Praguers know is blocked there for most of the day. Every morning, every afternoon, it’s blocked by its own traffic volume.
“So if you want to call it a block, then yeah, it’s blocking itself all the time. And the impact we’ve had in terms of quantity? Maybe one percent.
“It works, because it makes people make a fuss about it. But actually the inconvenience we cause to drivers is negligible, it really is.”
You are pushing for the speed limit everywhere in Prague to be set at 30 kilometres an hour – is that correct?
“Yes, because it makes sense and it’s becoming standard in the West – and it’s time that Prague steps up. There are no arguments against it, there really aren’t.”
Be that as it may, some people will think, There are so many issues with the environment, so many things that are in a terrible state – why is this the hill you’re ready to die on?
“You’re absolutely right. We chose an issue which is absolutely deliverable. It’s a so-called dilemma issue, so either the government or the city government agrees with us and then we have achieved our goal and we can show that this works, or they don’t and we can demonstrate that not even this very simple, easy thing, that Prague actually has already agreed to in the Stockholm Agreement, are they willing to implement. And therefore they are incapable of acting in the time necessary.
“Of course this is just our first demand. We will soon have further ones.”
How many times have you carried out this kind of process? And what’s your sense of the Prague government responding? Or are they responding in any way?
“Yeah, they are vilifying us. Which is what happens when you do civil resistance. You will be vilified. That’s happened to Just Stop Oil. The state starts repression…”
But how is that success for you, being vilified?
“With the majority I’m what they call an ‘eco-terrorist’.”
“It creates attention. It creates media coverage. It’s not about my popularity. I’m not a popular person in the Czech Republic right now. Maybe with a minority, but with the majority I’m what they call an ‘eco-terrorist’.
“It’s not about my popularity. I’m not doing this to be popular.”
Well, I think we can safely say that that’s clear. Just on a point of information, how many times have you done it so far?
“Just 17 marches. And now we have paused for the summer.”
Is it the case – which I read – that you have glued yourself to the road?
“Yes, I did it last year, with Extinction Rebellion in Prague. But I’ve done it several times in Germany. As part of Letzte Generation I go and protest in Germany.”
Just a physical experience, what’s that like? What happens when you’re stuck…?
“It sticks. I mean, c’mon, this is important, Ian. Billions of people are going to die and you are asking about superglue. Get real.”
I’m just curious.
“No, no, this is important. We’ve now spent five minutes talking about marches and now you’re asking me about glue. It’s all over the news. There’s Just Stop Oil – it’s all there. Let’s talk about the really important things. Let’s talk about the situation we’re heading into in the Czech Republic now.”
When the traffic is slowed drivers get angry, and I’ve seen some videos online of drivers even seeming to drive into protesters. How much danger are you in when you carry out these kinds of protests?
“It’s dangerous. It’s a calculated risk. Just as with any risk, always something can happen. But it’s in the context of the so much bigger risk that we’re all facing, that our children and our grandchildren are facing, that it is actually absolutely necessary to do it at this time.”
Have you or any of your fellow members been injured?
“Yes, I broke a rib last year when a driver on the city highway kicked me in the side. I’ve also been kicked in Hamburg, earlier this year, by a driver. That also went viral. And I’ve suffered police violence in Germany and also the Czech Republic.”
What was the form of police violence here?
“It’s pain grips, which are completely unnecessary, because we don’t resist. It’s passive resistance and they by law have to use the mildest form of moving us from the street, which is by carrying.
“I can compare it to the UK, where the police are extremely professional, in my experience, in public as well as inside buildings. It’s not like that in Germany and it’s not like that in the Czech Republic.”
You may also say this is trivial, but still I’m curious. Most people as they get older get less radical. They go the opposite direction and become more conservative. You are in your 50s and you’re carrying out these kinds of protests that many would associate with young people. What’s driving you to be so radical at your age?
“Well, I’m a geologist. I understand the planet and the crisis we’re getting into and I’m devastated. I’m keeping a facade here because actually I feel like crying all the time. I feel like screaming at the top of my lungs, Can we please wake up and do something?
“We’re facing an exponential situation and humans are not good in exponential situations.”
“Because we’re facing an exponential situation and humans are not good in exponential situations. We think linear, we think we turn up the temperature and then we turn it down. No, very soon, probably in months rather than years, we’ll get into an area where we cannot turn back.”
Do you have any sense of progress? Or are you filled with despair?
“No, there’s progress. But the best image is when you’re in an escalator, an escalator going down. We’re all on an escalator going down. The government is trying to get us off that escalator, in the reverse sense, but they’re going too slow – so we’re actually sinking down.
“They are saying, in good conscience, But we’re moving in the right direction. And they are. And [laughs] they are saying, We’re doing more than the previous government. And they are.
“But actually now the situation is deteriorating every day. And until we start running faster than the escalator that’s going down, what the governments are doing is completely useless.
“And this is what we are doing as pressure groups, getting society to wake up, because once society, voters, demand change, then change will come. It won’t come just because of a few people gluing themselves to the street.
“Stopping people on their way to work, or sometimes on their way to hospital – I have no satisfaction whatsoever in it.”
“But what we see happening in the UK and Germany, and hopefully in the future also in the Czech Republic, is that – despite politicians claiming the contrary – society is very much able to differentiate between the method we apply, which I think it’s fair to say is despicable: stopping people on their way to work, or sometimes on their way to hospital – I have no satisfaction whatsoever in it.
“But people are able to differentiate and say, We don’t like what this group is doing, but their demands, and the climate crisis, that’s something where the government is actually failing us. And if that reaches critical mass then the government will act – and that’s why we’re doing it.”
I saw one interview with you in which you said there was disagreement within your own family over your approach. Could you elaborate on that?
“It’s private. I’ve got family members who are very much against what I’m doing and I won’t go into detail. And it’s the biggest pain in my life.”
What do you think about people who vandalise SUVs?
“It’s not something I would do. Because we in Last Generation might actually do property damage, but we would stay there until the police arrive. We stay, with integrity. We say, We’ve done this and we will bear the consequences.
“So we don’t do any activities in the middle of the night and run away. That’s not our way of doing things. However, I understand that people are getting more and more desperate and I think that we will see more of that.
“Because it’s true, people who buy big SUVs have a bigger share in the problems that we’re creating, especially rich people. So they should be aware that we’re moving into uncertain times. And when society collapses, and we’re heading for that right now, the richest people will be targeted first. There’s a reason why they’re building their bunkers in New Zealand [laughs].”
Maybe I kind of touched on this earlier, but was there one moment for you personally when you said, OK, this is it – I have to devote all my energy to this cause?
“No, it’s a slow progression into that awareness. And it’s an ongoing fight, because I’m the father of a family, I used to be an entrepreneur, I had a company; I feel lots of responsibilities towards the things that I’ve been doing, and yet I cannot do them all. I cannot divide myself.
“Do I take care of my daughter? Or do I protest and go to prison so that she has a future?”
“So it’s an ongoing struggle of prioritising. Do I take care of my 16-year-old daughter? Or do I protest and go to prison so that she has a future? That’s a dilemma I cannot resolve, actually.”
How many members does Last Generation have?
“Oh, we’re just a handful – maybe 15 or 20. But the important thing is that 15 or 20 people is absolutely enough to do three or four roadblocks in Prague, which creates the publicity that the topic needs.”
Since I became interested in politics as a teenager I have always thought that there are very worthy causes that are not served best by the people who are promoting those causes. Sometimes they use methods that maybe work against the cause that they are championing. Is there not a danger that regular people in Prague, motorists and non-motorists, will see what you’re doing and will be more anti-environmental activist than pro? That they will be more angry than inspired to make a change?
“You’re right, there will be anti-environmental activists, there will be anti-environmental activism – but there won’t be anti getting a future for themselves and their kids.
“They might not admit that. We’re pushing their noses into this topic and that’s nothing nice, but actually because we’re raising the interest they will read the articles and gain a bigger understanding. This is proven by sociology – that actually this stuff works and society does shift eventually.
“They won’t become radical and start blocking the street with us. But they will pay more attention to the issue and the issue will be more written about by the media.
“And in the end it will not be about which method did we employ to glue our hands to the road – it will be about the government failing us, and all governments failing to provide a liveable future for us and for many other living beings on this planet.”
Ultimately, how likely do you think your group is to actually achieve something?
“Society is coming around. Nature is helping big time: the climate records, things are deteriorating.”
“I think it’s likely, because society is coming around. Nature is helping big time: the climate records, things are deteriorating, it’s faster than anyone expected. And it will be faster. This is exponential.
“So for me it’s not a question of ‘if’, it’s a question of ‘when’. And my job is to make sure that the ‘when’ is earlier. If it’s at the cost of me going to prison, or having problems with some family members, or destroying some of my friendships, that’s all worth it for the cause.
“It’s about our survival. If you haven’t understood that – and now I’m addressing the listeners – you’d better start reading about it, and then start acting.
“It doesn’t matter what you do. You can send money, you can do some changes… but at this point it’s not about individual change, it’s about system change – we need to make systemic changes to overcome the crisis we’re in.”