This week, XR have begun a fortnight of protests set to become the UK’s biggest environmental demonstration in history.
Activists will camp out on bridges, stage ‘die-ins’ on the streets, and many will get arrested all over the country. But what’s the goal here? And is anything different from the mass demonstrations in April?
October in Britain arrives like an old friend. In the winds that blow and the leaves that fall to the ground, there is consistency, an assurance that things in the natural world at least are proceeding as planned.
Here to disrupt that comfort this month is Extinction Rebellion, the environmental activist group who have declared two weeks of civil unrest to spur governments worldwide to get serious about the climate crisis. In spring, the group’s occupation of central London lead to 1130 arrests, and they’re hoping to widen participation this time around. Their goal is zero carbon emissions in the UK by 2025, cutting the Conservatives’ current target in half. The best available science backs xr’s urgency on the issue; according to last year’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC), drastic changes are needed to keep the Earth from warming another 1.5 degrees Celsius to avoid catastrophic effects.
None of this knowledge is new. In May, UK MPs declared a climate emergency, yet at the Conservative party conference last week environment secretary Theresa Villiers instead favoured detailing the government’s plan for improving animal welfare. For environmentalists, the ruling body’s reaction, or lack thereof, has been infuriating. In her speech to MPs in April, teenage activist Greta Thunberg called the government’s response to climate change ‘beyond absurd’.
After a decade’s long battle, it seems a tipping point has finally been reached in the fight to win hearts and minds in the fight against climate change. But while public opinion is now vastly in favour of tackling the emergency, the widespread feeling towards XR is ambiguous. Boris Johnson calls them “uncooperative crusties”; not even two days later, his dad sings their praises at a Trafalgar Square rally. This proximity to the face of the current government might tout the group’s growing influence, but it does nothing to quell uneasiness about how radical their movement truly is. At best, the group is straddling the line between disrupting and abetting the status quo that it claims to oppose. The sympathetic figures of institutional power offer the same platitudes to the School Strike for Climate movement: ‘don’t give up’, ‘keep going’, ‘you’re an inspiration’. But XR should not be content with being an inspiration if it is not paired with action. Stanley Johnson says there is not “a single dissenting voice in [his] family” on this issue. But if that’s the case, why does this seem to be an emergency in name only to the government? And why should Extinction Rebellion give this man a platform to laud his children’s environmental credentials when they would rather squabble about Brexit?
The group’s relation to the police has also given many cause for concern. Pictures of activists being arrested, grinning, in April were followed by questions of whether the group was taking into account that for some minority groups, being arrested was not part of a protest to be worn as a badge of honour and instead a disproportionate risk rooted in institutional racism. After having listened to the criticism, for the coming weeks organisers have come up with ways to minimise the risk of arrest for those who may face harsher treatment, designed to keep all activists safe. XR would do well to amplify this alongside #EverybodyNow, their call to action for those on social media. Since the climate crisis will affect all of us, it is the job of those who benefit from injustices in society to use their privilege not to further their own standing amongst the establishment, but to make sure no one forgets that the fight to change the systems that are wreaking ecological havoc are the same ones that further exploitation and oppression, both foreign and domestic.