A new, urgent, approach to environmental activism is extremely welcome
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. In advance of his latest wildlife television series, Dynasties, David Attenborough said recently 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 Donald Trump, and with a commitment to grassroots organising, 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. 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 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 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 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