Faced by an ex­tinc­tion cri­sis, protesters’ sense of ur­gency is jus­ti­fied

The Guardian - Journal - - Opinion -

How to push green is­sues up the po­lit­i­cal agenda is a ques­tion that has ex­er­cised en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists for decades. Do dark warn­ings about the world that awaits us if we do not cur­tail car­bon emis­sions and pro­tect forests and oceans mo­ti­vate peo­ple to act, or scare them off ? Are apoc­a­lyp­tic vi­sions such as that in Cor­mac McCarthy’s novel The Road what we need to open our minds, or an in­duce­ment to give up try­ing?

Opin­ion is di­vided, as events of the past week have il­lus­trated. In ad­vance of his lat­est wildlife tele­vi­sion se­ries, Dy­nas­ties, David At­ten­bor­ough said at the week­end that too many warn­ings about en­dan­gered species are a “real turn-off ”. A few days ear­lier, the ac­tivist group Ex­tinc­tion Re­bel­lion launched a cam­paign of civil disobe­di­ence by de­mand­ing a zero-car­bon econ­omy by 2025. Writ­ing in ad­vance of a protest in Lon­don that saw 15 peo­ple ar­rested, Green MEP Molly Scott Cato said she and oth­ers have been driven to break the law af­ter spend­ing years ring­ing alarm bells and be­ing ig­nored.

In­flu­enced by thinkers in­clud­ing Charles Eisen­stein and Erica Chenoweth, whose ideas about peace­ful protest have also been taken up by op­po­nents of Pres­i­dent Trump, and with a com­mit­ment to grass­roots or­gan­is­ing that is sim­i­lar to 350.org (the anti-fos­sil­fuel or­gan­i­sa­tion launched in the US by Bill McKibben in 2007), Ex­tinc­tion Re­bel­lion aims to fo­ment a mass move­ment that will change his­tory. Elected politi­cians, goes the ar­gu­ment, have failed, as have busi­nesses and other or­gan­i­sa­tions in­clud­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal char­i­ties. Car­bon emis­sions and bio­di­ver­sity loss are out of con­trol. The “unimag­in­able hor­rors” of unchecked warm­ing and habi­tat de­struc­tion mean more rad­i­cal tac­tics are called for – and morally jus­ti­fied by the dan­gers, in the eyes of protesters.

While the cur­rent fo­cus on the ex­tinc­tion cri­sis is novel, and a con­trast to more fa­mil­iar warn­ings about emis­sions, the no­tion that en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivism en­com­passes law­break­ing is not new.

The Green party of Eng­land and Wales ap­proves of civil disobe­di­ence in the state­ment of un­der­ly­ing prin­ci­ples known as its “philo­soph­i­cal ba­sis”. Green­peace has en­gaged in non­vi­o­lent di­rect ac­tion along­side the tra­di­tional NGO tools of lob­by­ing and pe­ti­tions since the 1970s. Ac­tivists have used oc­cu­pa­tions and block­ades as tech­niques in protests against road-build­ing, air­ports and coal-fired power sta­tions. They have also mounted protests against spon­sor­ship by oil com­pa­nies in mu­se­ums. Most re­cently, at­tempts to frack in Lan­cashire have been dis­rupted by protesters, three of whom were freed from prison last month af­ter suc­cess­fully ap­peal­ing against sen­tences that judges found to be “man­i­festly ex­ces­sive”.

The height­ened lan­guage of emer­gency and break­down em­ployed by this new group­ing will not ap­peal to ev­ery­one. Nor is it in­tended to. It is ra­tio­nal to be scep­ti­cal about whether the protesters will achieve their aims. But on the ba­sis of the most re­cent warn­ings about ris­ing tem­per­a­tures and species de­cline, and chan­cel­lor Philip Ham­mond’s fail­ure to men­tion cli­mate change at all in last week’s bud­get, it is not ra­tio­nal to deny that they are jus­ti­fied in re­belling against the gov­ern­ment’s in­ac­tion.

Their sense of ur­gency is wel­come.

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