Humans’ relationship to change, ironically, often stays the same. Throughout history, the four steps of necessary social change are that it is proposed, opposed, succeeds, and then further opposition becomes unthinkable. The Suffragettes wanted votes for women, were met with scorn and branded terrorists, then ‘won’, and now any initiative to remove women’s suffrage –something that was once considered laughable – would be met with the appropriate disgust.
When that necessary social change is trying to combat climate change, we’re teetering between steps two and three – opposition and success – and one group trying to get us over the hump - willingly or otherwise - is Extinction Rebellion.
Opposition to them is understandable, in that we’ve seen it before. People didn’t deem black civil rights as worth the trouble of the methods being used to bring them about, so opposed them. The fight for same-sex marriage was once one fought only by those on the extreme left, and now any attempt to repeal gay marriage would be met fierce opposition.
There’s no denying Extinction Rebellion’s methods are annoying, or to use the slightly politer term, obstructive; that is the nature of direct action. It was ‘annoying’ when Suffragettes chained themselves to rails, and ‘obstructive’ when civil rights activists conducted sit-ins, but all of these were pivotal to enacting necessary social change.
Yet, there are still people who believe that Extinction Rebellion’s actions are unnecessary. But the more educated we become about climate change, the weaker this argument becomes. It is beyond doubt that global warming is happening (average global temperature in 2016 was 1.1 degrees Celsius higher than in the pre-Industrial era), ‘extremely likely’ that this is mainly thanks to human activity (as concluded by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2013) and that this will have drastic effects on the planet (more extreme weather, rises in sea level and increased risk of hunger when food supplies are disrupted). Thus, the three ‘demands’ made by Extinction Rebellion - for the state to declare a climate emergency, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 and to create a Citizen’s Assembly – are perfectly reasonable. More than that, they are desperately needed, meaning the benefits of introducing them far outweigh the costs, such as disruption to public services.
A lesser but nonetheless important point is that these costs are often exaggerated: Extinction Rebellion insists it is committed to non-violence beyond the odd broken window. Protest leaders work with the police to ensure ambulances are redirected past protest sites, and the pride the group takes in its “decentralisation” of leadership makes organising larger events that could pose a greater threat difficult.
Not only are Extinction Rebellion trying to bring about vital change, they are doing it in a way that continues a decades-long tradition of using direct action to achieve social goals. Before Extinction Rebellion, climate change was given lip service, and any action besides recycling and taking public transport was rarely discussed. Now, Extinction Rebellion - along with other activists such as 16-year-old Greta Thurnberg - have made climate change a hot button issue. In one year the environment has climbed from voters’ 7th to 3rd most important issue, behind only Brexit and the NHS, ahead of the economy, education and crime, according to pollster YouGov.
It’s easy to scoff at Extinction Rebellion, and it’s hard to deny that in the short run, they are a nuisance. In the long run, though, they are helping to create a new and desperately needed era of environmental consciousness. In the very long run, future historians will find they were on the right side of history, just as we did with the activists of old who were denounced in their time.
Extinction Rebellion, founded in late 2018, has been present in the media intermittently, often disappearing as quickly as they appear.
They first came to the forefront with their open letter in October 2018, signed by ninety-four academics, attacking the government and calling for “a Citizens’ Assembly to work with scientists on the basis of the extant evidence and in accordance with the precautionary principle, to urgently develop a credible plan for rapid total decarbonisation of the economy.” I certainly found the language dense, as well as political. The letter, titled “Facts about our ecological crisis are incontrovertible. We must take action”, can be read on the Guardian website.
Their biggest mistake, in my opinion, is the manifestation of their protest — the “respectful disruption”. Due to the nature of any successful democracy, one of the most effective ways to bring about change is to convince the majority. Extinction Rebellion cites many fighters and movements against injustice from history, including the Suffragettes, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Occupy London. However, one important aspect that all these fights have in common, which is lacked by the people of the UK in regard to climate change, is the oppressed. When the Suffragettes caused disruption for the right to vote, they caused disruption in the name of women; when Gandhi stood against the British in India, he did so on behalf of all the Indian people; when Martin Luther King rallied against the American establishment, he did so for the African-American population; and when Occupy held protests outside the LSE, they protested for those who suffer from economic inequality. In each case, the change trying to be brought about involves a downtrodden people who are inspired by those who sacrifice on their behalf.
Extinction Rebellion has an oppressor to attack but no oppressed to inspire. The oppressed in their fight is the Earth and the Earth cannot speak for itself. The advantage that having an oppressed people has, when it comes to winning the fight, is that you have a recruiting pool from which you can gather supporters. When it comes to disruptive protest, that pool is necessary, as without it, you are alienating far more than you are convincing.
My advice to Extinction Rebellion would be to target those in power and appeal to the common person. I cannot imagine daily commuters’ spare thoughts for the zealot who delays them.