Extinction Rebellion (XR) worked. From its launch to the end of the first Rebellion in April 2019, which precipitated meetings with the Government and its subsequent climate emergency declaration, the strategy proved to be successful. Climate-consciousness in the UK was raised, permanently – there was no going back. And yet, XR also didn’t work – in the sense that our country is still emitting deadly pollution like there’s no tomorrow, with efforts to adapt to the effects of the climate crisis nowhere to be seen.
An even more radical ‘radical flank’
XR was formed as a ‘radical flank’ to existing eco-organisations, but this has evidently reached a limit. So what now? Some see the solution as further escalation – a new more radical ‘radical flank’. That is the rationale behind the new ‘Insulate Britain’ (IB) protests that are repeatedly paralysing the M25.
But is this really the way forward? Good luck to these brave citizens. Whilst I hope that our Government will do the sane thing and move swiftly and seriously to upgrade our housing stock, I am sceptical. Natalie Bennett made a brave positive response to IB; and James O’Brien’s surprising, thoughtful response on LBC is very moving. But they are outliers. The public and media reaction is hugely negative, more so than with XR. Will there be push-back against the Government’s injunction against the protestors? I think it’s very doubtful.
The scale of the unfolding realisation about the climate and ecological emergency is not matched by an appetite for XR’s tactics. The movement’s self-declared goal of mobilising 3.5 per cent of the population has not materialised. However, we know that the public’s awareness of the climate crisis was permanently raised by the actions of XR. In recent interviews with IB, when spokespeople said things like, ‘We need to draw attention to just how bad the climate problem still is’, interviewers invariably by saying things like, ‘We know!’. They didn’t say that in 2019. What the public and the media are hungry for now is a way to actually make a difference. They are looking for actions that have a positive dimension – something that the M25 protest simply don’t possess.
Motorways with vehicles racing down them belching carbon and air pollution are part of the problem, but there is grave danger in actions that appear to target ordinary people, as opposed to the Government and the City. Now that climate-consciousness has been successfully raised, such negative, blunt-instrument actions are simply not going to resonate. They are likely to precipitate calls for repression, for the introduction of measures such as greater police powers. Despite the justice of their cause, public sympathy for the protestors in the wake of today’s (22 September) Government injunction seems unlikely. Currently, IB’s strategy looks set to fail.
The new Robin Hoods?
Imagine if a different approach were taken. How could IB supporters become heroes rather than ‘villains’? What if there was a way to model and perhaps catalyse the actual insulation of Britain’s housing stock – how might this be done? Well, what if IB were to steal a load of wool or other insulating material from some rich source, and take it street by street to the lofts of social housing? This, especially the stealing part, would not be easy to do, but it might actually work.
It would identify IB with one of the great heroes of British history – Robin Hood. Imagine the Government moving to prosecute those who undertook such a programme; there would be howls of disapproval. There would be a real national conversation, like there was in April 2019, when XR for a while achieved ‘hyper-agency’ – the power to enact changes that previously felt impossible. If these new Robin Hoods were to be imprisoned, there would be an outcry, with real, positive attention directed towards their cause. This ‘Robin Hood’ action would put the Government in a real dilemma – would they really be willing to remove insulation that would protect those who need it against very bad winters, whilst also reducing carbon emissions?
What is striking about this thought experiment – which could actually happen – is that it involves resonant, positive direct action. The same kind of thing could be imagined with much lower ‘barriers of entry’ across the domains of our workplaces, and our communities. In fact, that is already starting to happen. Consider organisations seeking to transform what happens in jobs that are key ‘leverage points’ in our society, such as the newly-formed ‘Lawyers for net zero’. Or organisations seeking to enable local communities on the ground to initiate the work that will adapt and mitigate, such as the emerging ‘Climate emergency centres’.
A new, moderate flank
My very strong hunch is that this is the way forward. These kinds of activities possess a resonant positivity. But, strikingly unlike IB, these are examples ‘in the opposite direction’, in the sense that they are examples of more moderate action with potential mass buy-in. There are ways of utilising the new space for agency and change that is XR’s ongoing legacy. Millions of people are now wanting to know how to take meaningful action. They aren’t satisfied with action in their personal lives; they want to participate in real change that can scale up. They are asking for something that is, relative to XR, a moderate flank, not a more radical flank.
The paradox is that – at the very moment when the climate crisis is getting off-the-scale-bad, thus ‘justifying’ more ‘extreme’ direct action – getting more people involved in the movement requires less ‘extreme’ action, relative to XR, that is. We badly need broad-based action that can add up to enough.
‘Insulate Britain’ is a completely understandable response to our predicament, but it is fantastically unlikely to be a successful one. At best, it is likely to make XR seem a bit more reasonable, but that will not be enough to bring the wide step-change we need. If we are serious about that objective, as we must be, a mass moderate flank is what is now called for. Unless there’s a change of direction in IB towards becoming Robin Hoods, the real challenge for those who’ve been tempted to get involved in the group is to help lead that, instead.