November 28, 2018
Direct action to avoid extinction
When the world’s climate scientists come together as one to proclaim the human race is literally facing the prospect of it own extinction, it’s unnerving to observe how little attention this attracts in the media. Brexit is important, as is whatever Trump says and does but in the scheme of things surely safeguarding the future of the planet trumps Trump? In response to the general lack of response from our leaders, concerned citizens are taking things into their own hands. The intention is to clog up our police cells, courts and prisons until government takes notice. The Extinction Rebellion is spreading.
The Extinction Rebellion (XR) is a headline machine. In blocking roads and bridges, protesters have brought a momentary stop to the pump and snarl of city motorists – and annoyed any number of drivers in the process. In doing so, not only does the group signal a willingness to shut down cities to hammer home the scale of the crisis but draws attention to cities’ addiction to petrol. The rationale for this kind of action – and I’ve blocked many a road in my time – is that the situation is so serious that peaceful obstruction is necessary to bring wider attention and demand change, inconvenience be damned.
Are motorists the right target? The preference still given to the car in transport policy is ultimately incompatible with tackling climate change: in a world committed to limiting climate catastrophe, we will need a renewed, cheap and efficient public transport network. But the rationale for road and bridge blocking doesn’t come from a desire to shift this debate. Rather, XR’s tactics are twofold: one, to draw on the repertoire developed by direct action and social justice movements throughout the last century to make political and media impact; two, by a willingness to face legal repercussions for taking action, demonstrate the seriousness of the crisis and build a movement.
The climate movement is not unfamiliar with these tactics. Activists associated with groups such as Plane Stupid or the Camp for Climate Action have taken dramatic actions against the aviation industry or fossil fuel producers – including occupying and temporarily shutting down coal-powered stations, and facing down the legal repercussions that followed. Given just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions, perhaps a strategy focused on those companies – their buildings, their plants, their delivery networks – would function better to rally the greater public behind the movement: such actions need both to communicate why an action is being taken, across the media, as well as being willing to actually put bodies and reputations on the line.
There are wider political questions that the movement ought to consider, too. Many of the icons of non-violent protest cited by protesters – Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks – were successful not simply because of the moral gravity of their protest but because their protests were rooted in a wider story of grievance, with clear stories of injustice, moral rationale for their acts of refusal, and deeply linked to their own communities.
There is no more profound grievance than the survival of the planetary ecosystem but activists can also overlook the important truth that climate change is, above all, ordinary. It will affect the single mother trying to feed her kids on a tight budget, the nurse who worries all day at work, distracted, about potential house flooding, hotter summers and colder winters will kill the elderly, poor and vulnerable – as well as destabilise nation states and destroy the oceans. To build a resistance across society, the problem must be rooted in the life of ordinary people as much as a willingness to martyr oneself for the cause.
Leaving aside the inevitable detritus of social movements – the eccentric meditators and people with curious hair – XR’s biggest failing is not its urgency, nor taking things too seriously, but conversely not taking the crisis seriously enough. This is clearest in the nascent movement’s unwillingness to formulate targeted political demands and absence of a political strategy. If we accept that we have a very limited time to bring emissions under control, then we must also accept that the vehicles for that enormous transformation will be those that already exist, however imperfectly. That includes national legislatures, international bodies and political parties.
The movement’s laudable but vague three aims – that government and press tell the truth; to bring emissions to zero; that a democratic assembly oversees the process – remind me of the classic problem of politics. That is, knowing where you want to end up, but without any middle steps, failing to understand how to get there.
Participation in the climate movement convinced me that action on the scale needed can be taken only on the state level. In Britain, in the timescale needed, that will require engagement with the only viable political force – the Labour party – capable of tackling climate change, alongside hard-nosed direct action against the hydrocarbon industry. This would mean developing a clear offer to the trade unions, many of whose regressive positions on the environment are rooted in a fear of job loss and impoverishment, as well as pushing the party to flesh out its currently vague and scanty climate commitments, and insisting on fossil divestment in public procurement. The Labour party’s branch and constituency structure offers a vehicle to make climate a part of every campaign, on every doorstep in Britain.
Such a proposal will be uncomfortable for many protesters, who rightly look at Labour’s record on climate with scepticism verging on disgust. But, as Extinction Rebellion might themselves say, the situation is too urgent to do anything else.