I believe that halting and if we can, reversing man-made climate change is one of the most important challenges facing humankind in the 21st century. How we manage to decarbonise our economy while continuing to prosper will be a key element of existence in the decades to come. Yet I don’t think Extinction Rebellion is a good addition to this cause. In fact, I believe the group is now doing more harm than good.
My mind on this was made up over the weekend, when XR protestors blockaded several newspaper printworks, one in Hertfordshire and one in Knowsley, stopping the distribution of the Sun, the Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. It’s the sort of thing that got a lot of backslapping within certain social media bubbles for supposedly stopping the Murdoch press dead in its tracks. Yet it left me cold and not for the reasons that were mentioned by the government or certain portions of the press (i.e. that free speech was under threat). I didn’t like it because I felt it worked directly against the cause Extinction Rebellion is supposed to be trying to further.
Here’s what the blockade achieved from what I can see. First and foremost, it allowed the government to have a positive story to put out to its supporters. This comes at a time when a lot of Tory members and voters will be upset about sudden quarantines and facemasks becoming more and more compulsory, so it was a very useful thing to have been handed on a plate. It allowed the Tories to say, 'Remember, we are the only ones standing in the way of this XR lot having a real say in how the country is run. Is that what you want?'
Secondly, it was free publicity for the publications that got blockaded that I think may be of some value to them over the long term. A bit like what it gave to the government, it reminded a lot of people of the fragility of our media and that parts of it they like seem to be 'under attack' by portions of the activist left. As a subscription drive motivator, it was a nice present to the Sun from the folks at Extinction Rebellion.
Finally, it did what I think a lot of XR stunts always do in the end: it trivialised the climate change cause. So much of what the protest group does seems to unconsciously achieve this. Like when they block a bridge across the Thames to do interpretive dance, they don’t seem to realise that what they are communicating to those out there who are in the middle on this issue, people who are swayed by arguments that, unless we get carbon emissions under control we are in serious trouble as a species, yet tempted by counterarguments that it is no big deal, is that the issue is only relevant to upper-middle class kids on a gap year with enough wealth to lark about. The newspaper blockade was a classic of this type; some posh young people seemingly trying to get a modicum of revenge against their parents’ choice of reading material.
If what Extinction Rebellion is trying to do is convince people who do not currently take climate change seriously enough as an issue to think about it much more urgently, I think they are failing. It reminds me a bit of how some Remainers fought back against Brexit – when you make something a left-right issue, what you gain in the passionate uptake on one side of the political divide, you lose by having the whole other side of political opinion vested against you. Extinction Rebellion seem to be saying, unconsciously or not, 'If you read the Telegraph or The Sun, please be advised that environmental concern isn’t for you. We’ve written you all off as deniers so you might as well go that way anyhow'.
Trying to move to a zero-carbon economy over the coming years is going to be a huge challenge. We need to have as many people as possible taking it seriously as an issue. By actively trying to alienate a whole swathe of centre-right people, Extinction Rebellion is working against this need.
Climate change is too important to get caught up in the culture wars. We need everyone on the same side, be they liberal, conservative, socialist or whatever political stripe. Environmental activists would do well to realise that while it might feel good to have left-wing social media give you a slap on the back for a stunt supposedly well-executed, it is actually the working-class guy who reads the Sun every day that you need to convince. Perhaps the next XR stunt could be geared toward getting people not already on board with the cause to think twice about it.