‘Driving us to ruin’: Netherlands climate protesters fight fossil fuels

Actor Sieger Sloot was convicted for social media appeals to block a major motorway to protest against billions in subsidies for fossil fuel companies.

Sieger Sloot
Sieger Sloot is taken away by police during a climate demonstration on the A12 highway in The Hague [Courtesy: Eeke Anne de Ruig]

Dutch actor and climate activist Sieger Sloot took to social media, as he typically does, to encourage people to join a protest planned in The Hague in January.

But what Sloot thought was an innocent attempt to organise a non-violent demonstration to demand action to tackle the burgeoning climate emergency led to an eight-month ordeal resulting in a sedition conviction.

The 45-year-old’s posts on Twitter, now known as X, were a call to join a protest organised by the climate activist group Extinction Rebellion to block part of the A12 highway, the main road leading to The Hague.

Formed in 2018, Extinction Rebellion has gained notoriety by employing disruptive tactics targeting roads and airports to denounce the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. The group, also known as XR, boasts more than 1,000 chapters in 88 countries.

Two days before the January 28 protest, local police showed up at Sloot’s home to arrest him, but he was out of town. Six other XR demonstrators, however, were detained the same day.

“It was 7am when my wife and two children were woken up with police officers on my doorstep,” Sloot told Al Jazeera, adding that they entered the house despite repeatedly being told he wasn’t home.

“My wife was really worried. My daughter was crying on the phone [with me]. I had to really try to calm her down. It made me really angry. It’s really unnecessary to incriminate citizens in such an intruding way who are just protesting.”

‘Incredibly short-sighted’

The following day, Sloot voluntarily showed up at a police station with his lawyer where he was questioned for two hours.

In August, he was convicted and sentenced to 60 hours of community service or alternatively 30 days in jail for sedition. He currently remains free as the sentence is under appeal in a higher court. A request for comment to the public prosecutor in The Hague went unanswered.

Governments in Europe have intensified crackdowns and rhetoric against climate activists participating in civil disobedience.

In April, two Just Stop Oil activists in Britain were given two-and-a-half and three-year sentences for scaling a major bridge in London and halting traffic for about 40 hours.

In Germany, authorities in May raided the homes of seven people from the climate group Letzte Generation (Last Generation) for allegedly trying to create or support a criminal organisation under a law used to target organised crime and violent groups.

Richard Pearshouse, director of the environment division at Human Rights Watch, said the restrictions across Europe and the United Kingdom have been “incredibly short-sighted”.

“These governments haven’t grasped that we all have a huge interest in more people taking to the streets to demand better environmental protection and more climate action,” he told Al Jazeera.

In March, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned the Earth was approaching a “point of no return” because it risks bypassing the globally accepted target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) from pre-industrial times.

‘Climate anxiety’

Sloot, who was born in Rotterdam, said he has followed environmental issues since high school when he researched acid rain for a class assignment.

Climate documentaries An Inconvenient Truth in 2006 and 2014’s Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret on the meat industry “blew me away”, he said.

In 2022, the actor joined Extinction Rebellion, a decision prompted by his heightened “climate anxiety”.

“I felt loneliness and despair. Mentally it was a burden, and it affected the joy in my life. Everything felt so useless,” he said.

One major reason for his despair was concern for the future of his daughters, ages five and eight.

“Life will go on after I die. It’s totally logical, but for me, it was like an epiphany. I became aware this planet has to be livable for humans for millions of years,” Sloot said.

Sieger Sloot in the play SeksKlimaat
Sieger Sloot in the Dutch play SeksKlimaat (SexClimate) [Courtesy: Sergio Grigelli]

The Amsterdam-based activist said he felt a profound sense of “climate injustice” with Western countries, historically responsible for filling the atmosphere with the most greenhouse gases, far less affected by extreme weather than developing nations.

A 2009 pledge by wealthy countries to provide $100bn a year in climate finance to the developing world by 2020 has not been met, according to a report by UK charity Oxfam.

In fact, money given specifically for climate change in 2020 was less than half of what was reported and was often given in the form of loans that have to be repaid.

On a personal level, Sloot has made several lifestyle changes to reduce his own carbon footprint: adopting a mostly vegan diet, buying fewer and only secondhand clothes, and not taking a plane since 2017.

Sloot’s commitment to activism is evident in his artistic endeavors as well, such as the 2017 theatre comedy SeksKlimaat (SexClimate), a Dutch play about the lives of three friends trying do good during the climate emergency.

He also co-wrote and starred in Superkapitalisten, Super Capitalists, a 2012 play about the 2008 financial crisis.

Actors must be in tune with the pressing issues of their time, Sloot said. “I don’t really see the use of performing Hamlet for the sake of Hamlet. I think theatre should be very contemporary and address urgent matters affecting society,” he said.

Need for ‘a broader movement’

While individual actions are important, Sloot said he recognises their limitations.

“I can become vegan until I’m only eating grass, but if Shell and the fossil fuel industries aren’t stopped, it’s good for nothing. There has to be a broader movement to pressure our governments to implement stricter policies for companies polluting our air, our soil, our lives.”

Acts of organised civil disobedience such as road blockades are “not only justified but also necessary”, Sloot said.

“Nowadays everything we take for granted – like having a weekend, being able to vote, equal rights for women – none of these things existed 200 years ago. The only way we got there was because of civic disobedience,” he noted.

Sloot is adamant about using every legal manoeuvre to reverse his sentence, worried it could discourage others from exercising their right to peaceful protest.

Sieger Sloot
Sloot addresses a crowd of fossil fuel protesters in The Hague [Courtesy: Carice van Houten]

Willem Jebbink, the actor’s lawyer, told Al Jazeera he believes the verdict will not be upheld on appeal.

“It is without precedent in Dutch case law that a peaceful demonstrator was prosecuted and convicted for only calls to join a peaceful demonstration,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Blocking a road is acknowledged as a method to demonstrate by the UN Human Rights Committee, the European Court of Human Rights and the Court of Justice of the EU,” Jebbink noted.

Pearshouse said climate activism will only ramp up in the future. “We’re going to see more protests – and more desperate forms of protest – until governments start dismantling the industries driving us to ruin.”

Moving forward

In the meantime, Sloot remains undeterred in his protests, noting the planet is on the “highway to hell” because of the refusal to stop burning hydrocarbons.

After his ordeal with the police, he was slapped with a three-month restraining order from protesting on the A12 highway. Since it expired in May, he has attended three demonstrations while continuing to encourage participation on social media.

On September 9, Sloot joined more than 10,000 people on the A12, where police blasted them with water cannon and about 2,500 were detained. They called for the government to end all fossil fuel subsidies, a cornerstone demand of many Dutch climate activists.

The Dutch government spends nearly $40bn a year on subsidies for the industry, according to a study published this month by The Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations.

“Two years ago, nobody talked about fossil fuel subsidies in the Netherlands. Now it’s one of the biggest topics in the media. That gives me hope,” Sloot said.

Source: Al Jazeera