Last week was a busy one for climate activists Extinction Rebellion. A series of non-violent but obstructionist protests saw them block first Seven Dials then Oxford Circus with a giant table representing an offer to “come to the table” to discuss fossil fuels. They also had chairs, as if the symbology were not heavy-handed enough, left empty as an invitation to “those who identify as” female, trans and non-binary.
The group also made time for some tried and tested methods of annoyance. Members glued their hands together, lay down in the road and padlocked themselves together with locks inside steel tubes, and one particularly determined young man lay underneath a lorry with his arm encased in concrete. This was all designed to make their removal as time-consuming and awkward as possible for the Metropolitan Police.
There were some lighter moments. One of the movement’s founders, Dr Gail Bradbrook, found herself admitting on talkRADIO that she drives a diesel car, finding it essential to take her children to rugby and football fixtures, but parried host Cristo Foufas with “You’re being a boring interviewer”. One particularly excruciating moment came as several activists were filmed performing a theatrical dance around a floret of broccoli.
All in all, the first week of XR’s protests have been high on the disruption scale. Traffic in central London was more fraught and tortuous than usual as junctions like Piccadilly Circus and Long Acre were closed. The smaller rat runs were more sclerotic than ever and the deployment of hundreds of police officers and their transport only made things worse. Although one newspaper noted that the protest sites seemed to have been chosen to make smaller crowds look more impressive, the capital has certainly been disrupted.
This is, of course, what Extinction Rebellion want. They refer to their use of non-violent civil disobedience “because we think it is necessary—we are asking people to find their courage and to collectively do what is necessary to bring about change”. So headlines and a heavy police presence are, in their own terms, measures of success. Certainly, most people seem to know at least roughly what the group stands for.
The central question is whether this is effective. People may be aware of climate change and the need to control carbon emissions, but do these direct and disruptive protests actually advance the cause? The superficial metrics say not. YouGov polling reveals that the negative view of Extinction Rebellion far outstrips the positive view, and, purely anecdotally, the reaction on the streets seems to be weary resignation at best, outright annoyance at worst. A tweet last week from a man who missed a long-planned MRI scan because of road closures was symptomatic of the bad press Extinction Rebellion can generate.
There is also the issue of focus. Although tackling climate change is perceived to be the group’s driving force, they say quite clearly that their targets are “ecocide, oppression and patriarchy” (issues from which they say rather primly that they “withdraw our consent”). The reference to the inclusion of “people who identify as” female, trans and non-binary merely drafts in a whole other group of issues. One might gently suggest to the group that achieving consensus on addressing anthropogenic climate change would be a sufficiently significant achievement.
It is important to recognise how far we have come. In the UK, all the major political parties regard climate change as a central issue of concern and the current government is approaching November’s UN COP26 conference in Glasgow looking for media wins and good publicity. From green steel to gigafactories, the language of ecological activism is now absorbed by the mainstream, one reason why the Green Party of England and Wales is nowhere near making the sort of break-out of its German counterpart and challenging the traditional big beasts electorally.
That is not to say we are doing enough. There is a growing sense of urgency about environmental protection and the reduction of carbon emissions, but it remains easier to set targets than it is to achieve genuine reductions. The conundrum of Extinction Rebellion seems to be that they are campaigning in favour of something with which most people broadly agree, yet doing it in a way which alienates many.
Perhaps this phase of look-at-me activism is a necessary step. When the trustafarians and the drama students have left, placards and chains trailing behind them, they may have created a space into which others may step; those who are no less filled with the spirit of urgency but who understand nuance. The ones willing to do the hard yards of messy compromise and detail, rather than the adrenaline rush of being manhandled by London’s finest. Or, to seek inspiration more from Hemingway than Henry James: first you shout. But then you must talk. And then, at last, you can do.