The Extinction Rebellion climate campaign is fighting a worthy cause, but its protests risk leaving the public unstirred, writes Martyn McLaughlin.
If the promise and potential of Extinction Rebellion is imbued with a revolutionary zeal, it is hard not to be disappointed by how such a potent, contagious force has manifested itself over the course of the movement’s short history. In the six months since its inception, the burgeoning worldwide protest group has strived to communicate the urgency of the threat posed by climate change, framing it as an unprecedented global emergency which will bring about a mass extinction of mankind’s own making.
There is a feverish fatalism underpinning its core messages, and rightly so. If sober arguments rooted in incontrovertible scientific facts have failed to make their mark, perhaps it is time for something more bracing. Perhaps that time has already passed. Either way, it is refreshing to see such vigour in the new, virulent strain of climate protesters.
Extinction Rebellion is the result of indignation and desperation, the only real legacies of a debate that has raged on and off for the best part of three decades. As the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has pointed out, time is now running out to save ourselves from the worst effects of a looming catastrophe. The planet needs champions like never before, and some of those behind Extinction Rebellion make an articulate, impassioned case. Take Dr Gail Bradbrook, one of the co-founders of the rapidly growing movement.
“If your government isn’t protecting you and the future of your kids, you have a duty to rebel, and a right to rebel,” she reasons. “When you say, ‘No’, and you get on the streets, and you do an act of civil disobedience, it changes your psychology.”
How frustrating it has been, then, to see this energy fail to translate to the much-heralded protests taking place in cities including London, Edinburgh, and Glasgow. What was billed as the second major push of the group’s campaign has been, in truth, scarcely distinguishable from any other demonstration for any other cause.
Maybe it is demonstration fatigue. From Brexit and the Trump presidency through to issues such as the Iraq war and student tuition fees, the spectacle of the large-scale protest has been an irregular, yet powerful show of dissent in British public life over the past two decades.
But sustaining that, particularly when so many people struggle to formulate an emotional response to climate change, will be one of the main challenges Extinction Rebellion has to overcome.
So too, it must acknowledge, or at least consider, the limitations of its chosen route of disruptive civil disobedience in order to bring about “radical” social change.
The visibility of the movement is everything, and yet the photographs and videos which emerged from this week’s demonstrations do not capture the gravity of its campaign.
In Glasgow, activists hauled a banner up the heights of Finnieston Crane, a tactic employed in the past by those protesting against the militarisation of Armed Forces Day, and campaigners for nuclear disarmament. In London, meanwhile, supporters set up impromptu protest camps – tactics lifted straight out of Occupy London’s playbook.
The so-called ‘swarming’ strategy, which saw activists stage sit-ins on busy public highways and bridges in order to disrupt motorists and distribute leaflets, is more enterprising and directly addressed the ‘business as usual’ malaise which has allowed us to sleepwalk into jeopardy in the first place. But its impact, much like the patience of drivers, is finite.
The day’s proceedings even saw the glass door at the Waterloo headquarters of oil giant Shell smashed, with graffiti spray-painted on the exterior. The question for Extinction Rebellion is whether these action will have the impact it badly needs.
No one should expect a new generation of protestors to rewrite the rules of protest, and it is prudent to cherrypick ideas from elsewhere. But without some kind of distinguishing characteristic, the group will struggle to realise its ambitions.
The movement wants the UK Government to “tell the truth” by declaring a climate emergency, establish a citizens’ assembly on climate and ecological justice, and reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2025. Extinction Rebellion knows where it wants to get to. But does it know how to get there?
For all the urgency of its language, its goals seem to be lacking in focus. It has no discernible political strategy, and no defined roadmap to move towards its aims. Compare that if you will with the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led political action group in the US, which together with congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has captured the public imagination with its plan for a Green New Deal.
The wide-ranging stimulus package is concerned not only with the environment, but health, education, transport, and the economy. Sunrise too supports mass acts of civil disobedience, but there is more meat on its bones.
With British politics in a state of flux, there is a chance for Extinction Reblillion to achieve something similar. Or perhaps our parties are so hopelessly lost in the Brexit maze, there is no way out.
Those behind Extinction Rebellion may well argue that the threat posed by climate change is too pressing to focus on what government – and parliament – can do, and up to a point, they may well be right. But in a race where time is rapidly running out, it risks being left behind.