The Extinction Rebellion protest at Canning Town tube station, and the near-riot that ensued, was a major error of judgment that played straight into the hands of the movement’s many enemies.
Targeting public transport is ideologically nonsensical; but to do it at a time when irritable commuters are trying to make their way across heaving platforms is akin to having a death wish. Which is not to suggest the way the mob turned against the man standing on top of the train was acceptable; merely that it could have been predicted by anyone who has spent time on the London Underground at rush hour.
The misjudgment alienated workers who might in other, less volatile circumstances have been interested in a discussion about climate change. But it also allowed those right-wing commentators – the Brendan O’Neills and the Toby Youngs – to build on existing tropes of the campaigners as too middle class, too “elitist” and too extreme.
The spectacle of the likes of Times columnist and Brexiteer Iain Martin positioning himself as the defender of “working class cleaners” would be hilarious if it wasn’t so depressing. But these labels stick, especially if the targets are stupid enough to engage in behaviour which perpetuates them. It’s difficult enough to take on governments and global corporations without handing their smirking henchmen the weapons with which to shoot you.
Though the Canning Town protest brought matters to a dramatic head, criticism of the movement – its lack of a coherent ideology or strategy, its insensitivity to race and class issues; its “the end of the world is nigh” catastrophising – have been a source of internal and external friction for a while.
Extinction Rebellion (XR) has been influenced by political scientist Erica Chenoweth who says 3.5 per cent of a population must take part in a campaign of civil disobedience to guarantee political change. In order to attract that 3.5 per cent, the movement has to be inclusive. However, if you embrace a large cross-section – rich and poor, young and old, people from all ethnicities and political perspectives – it’s unrealistic to expect their views on causes, priorities or tactics to be aligned.
There are many obvious fault lines in XR. There is the divide between those in the global north – where we are being urged to “think of the children” – and the global south, where the poorest are already directly being impacted by floods. There is a divide between those who can afford to pay a carbon tax on flights and those for whom it might mean the loss of their once-a-year package holiday.
And then there is the divide between left and right; between those anti-capitalists who would once have been in Occupy and “Malthusians” – like Rupert Read – who want to rein in large-scale immigration. The extent to which this obliviousness to potential “othering” has the capacity to damage XR can be seen in the furore over the flowers left for the police officers at Brixton Police station. It takes a gag-inducing dollop of white privilege not to associate Brixton Police station with the oppression of black communities or to understand that praising officers for their “decency and professionalism” might be considered offensive.
The kind of climate change deniers who tweeted: “Please not Greta Thunberg” on the day the Nobel Peace Prize was due to be announced have already branded XR a Doomsday Cult. I would argue you can’t be a Doomsday “cultist” when the Doomsday scenario is rooted in science.
But again XR sometimes behaves in a way that encourages this interpretation. It doesn’t help that co-founder Gail Bradbrook’s world view altered after she took mind-bending drugs on a retreat in Costa Rica. Nor that some of those involved are so Biblical in their presentation of future destruction. When Bradbrook declares 97 per cent of species will be dead within her daughter’s lifetime unless we all stop producing CO2 by 2025, she sounds more like a wild-eyed prophet than a credible campaigner.
This matters a lot. If the complaint about climate change deniers is they ignore science, then XR has to be rigorous in sticking to the facts. It should base its statements on demonstrable truths – the destruction of our coral reefs, rising sea water levels, plummeting insect numbers. And its demands should be realistic. If it is feasible to ask the UK to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025, fair enough, But if it is not – and many experts believe it isn’t – then they should focus on what can be achieved. Pushing for too much, too quickly is only going to wind up potential sympathisers.
Talking of winding people up, XR leaders should use the tube station disaster as “a learning opportunity”. Civil disobedience is an important tool. It can raise awareness. It can force the hands of governments. But the targets have to be carefully chosen. Not the London underground. Or the BBC which – despite sometimes giving climate change deniers a platform – devotes time to reporting the impact of extreme weather conditions.
Those organising the protests ought to be mindful of workers’ routines and a balance ought to be struck between causing enough of a disturbance to make an impact and so great a disturbance it threatens livelihoods.
And use some imagination. If you want to target public transport, don’t bring it to a standstill, forcing more people to use their cars; make some statement about its cost or inefficiency.
Alongside the civil disobedience, the movement would gain from demonstrating some grasp of the complexity of climate change: the way it intersects with capitalism and class and how – if we do not guard against it – the solutions may entrench inequality rather than reverse it.
Extinction Rebellion is right in principle. Climate change is the most important issue of our time. The consequences of not acting quickly enough will be seismic. It is not true, as Thunberg has implied, that governments are doing nothing; but they are not doing nearly enough.
To force them to change their ways requires a massive, but also a measured response. Martin Luther King – the inspiration behind much of XR’s thinking – orchestrated bus boycotts and marches. But he retained enough establishment respect to be accepted into the White House to talk to JFK and Lyndon B Johnson at least until the Civil Rights Act was signed into law.
At the moment, the movement is making life easy for those naysayers who criticise XR’s tactics not because they have better ones, but because they want to push climate change off the agenda.
If Extinction Rebellion wants to be taken seriously, it needs to be less scatter-gun. It needs to rein in its renegades and rid itself of racists who see those in the global south as “the problem” rather than as victims of colonialism.
Saving the world is a lofty aim, but it won’t be achieved by alienating all those whose co-operation is needed if things are to change. It will be done by creating a consensus; by persuading as many people as possible that radical, systemic change is not just desirable, but imperative.