Activism has been around a long time and studies have shown that the environmental sector is bad at it. It has achieved less here than it has anywhere else with those who take part being labelled as “tree huggers”, “hippies” and other colourful terms. I work in this sector but I find it quite hard to disagree with a lot of the negativity towards some of these people, they really don’t seem to help themselves and indeed groups like Extinction Rebellion really play on the “rebel for life”, “we are not like you mentality” which can feel alienating, even as someone who supports environmental action. These groups protest loudly, disruptively and sometimes in stupid and dangerous ways. This leads even people who sympathise with the cause to lose faith in them. Personally I can’t align with them or support them as they are too aggressive and have done too many stupid stunts. I don’t want to be part of a group where every stunt I have to say “we’re not all like that”. If you have to deny, distance or apologise for the action, it was lkely a terrible action.
Activism is messy, particularly in the environmental sector as there as so many groups and each one is broken into further autonomous groups. Extinction Rebellion frequently distance themselves from their own members, indeed anyone can claim membership so it is clearly open to exploitation but only because they set it up as such. There are so many different levels of activism and very little control over who is getting the power, what they do, and often a hypocritical and self righteous response when authorities try to intervene. Certainly some activists break their own “non violence” and no “blame and shame” rule (rules 8 and 9 in the XR handbook fyi), indeed some it seems just enjoy the anarchy and protests which doesn’t advance the cause.
Activism groups follow a standard pattern. They tend to become to live, hit the news, develop support, start alienating people and then end up with a core group of supporters, a lot of indifferent people and authorities who try to stop them. This then leads to more and more radical attempts to be noticed. If we take the latest group, Extinction Rebellion and look at some of their stunts we can see this.
Firstly there was the infamous stunt of climbing on an electric train in a poor part of London and stopping commuters. Even XR’s core group advised that this was a bad idea but it went ahead anyway with protesters angering everyone, being dragged off the train and generally causing havoc. This caused the first real divisions in XR as they had internally opposed this and a poll showed 72% of members wanted no action against tube stations. It certainly didn’t aid in their efforts to be taken seriously and undermined their calls for greater democracy when they ignore their own majority. XR are not a climate group though, they have stated that this “isn’t about the climate” and that they want to abolish governments and that ‘forcing governments to act’ or ‘bringing them down’ in order to enact its policies will require ‘some to die in the process’.
Then we had the protest in Cambridge where they dug up university grounds, grounds that you aren’t allowed to even walk on. This was especially stupid as Cambridge City Council declared a climate emergency, are not Conservative and thus don’t represent the government and are generally pretty good at sustainability. Also, why was digging up the grass necessary, what was the purpose? Just to be controversial, just to make the news? Maybe that was the case but I can’t imagine anyone saw a hole in the grass in Cambridge and thought “better reduce my CO2 emissions”. At some point it seems the attention became more important than the message. At that point, all credibility is lost. Vandalism and activism are not the same thing.
We also had the “spraying the treasury with fake blood” scheme which seemed to go wrong and they sprayed the road. Even from a basic environmental point of view it wasted a lot of water with some sort of red chemical in it, used a fire engine which is about the most energy intensive road vehicle and made them a bit of a laughing stock for failing miserably at it. 8 people were arrested, people were disrupted and, as with the previous stunts, they lost support from the public.
Those stunts also saw a media that had started out by enjoying the novelty of the protests, turn against them. Pushing the public further away, they may want to be “rebels” but opposing the media and authority pushes them more toward extremes and alienates those who genuinely care. Now you have a divide with the majority of the media and public on the side of the authorities, meaning the government is even less likely to concede ground.
On top of this you have different groups which sometimes block emergency service vehicles and some that do not. The official line is they do let emergency vehicles through but there have been times when this has not happened which has alienated them further.
Calling for system change is all very well but you can’t do that from a jail cell, you need a seat at the table. A government can never been seen to bow to a protest, it sets a precedent. It could provide ammunition for the opposition who are free to agree. It is however very difficult even for them as many in XR fundamentally want to topple governments. Indeed the founder of XR, Roger Hallam has said,
“Name of the game, you’ve got to bring down all the regimes in the world, ideally simultaneously, and replace them. The practical implementation happens by paralyzing major cities with masses of people. Disabling traffic for a sufficiently long period of time would result in food shortages. Once that happens the regime will fall.”
I doubt however that was what most protestors thought they were doing. Were they protesting the environment or were they trying to cause starvation and the overthrow of government?
Indeed, Roger, an ex carrot farmer, went further:
“It rained a lot and my business went down the drain, and so I decided to take down the system because I didn’t like it very much,”
It certainly takes away from the high minded, social and climate justice angles. Sounds a lot more petty and vindictive. It also explains why the government put them on what amounts to a terrorist watch list. If you we explicitly state you want to overthrow a government, it is very hard to then expect them to listen. Objectively, if you put those quotes in front of a picture of dictator in the Middle East, the conclusion you draw is not “environmental activist”.
I appreciate what the protestors want, they want people to take notice because no one seems to care and they want to show the world what is happening, it’s frustrating. But venting is not progress. XR just do so many hypocritical and stupid things that it is very hard to see things from their perspective, even as someone who supports the environmental aim. To call for everyone to be involved and then to alienate and disrupt people seems to be counter intuitive. What about the middle ground of people, the ones who just aren’t sure, who were on the fence? Many now think “these environmental activists are stupid” and the chance to earn their support and help is gone. Not just for XR, but for Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and whoever else you want to name. They are now lumped together as crazy activists.
The diversity issue is still prevalent with them being accused of being a “middle class white protest” as they were the ones who could afford to be arrested. It is a fairly entitled view as most people can’t get arrested without damaging career prospects or risking a criminal record. Indeed for black members who wish to be arrested they wrote a special guide that said not to worry as “most prison officers are black and do not wish to give you a hard time” which seems like an obvious error. It also said people should use their time in prison to “practise yoga” and “learn from their experience” which is equally stupid.
Many of you may be in XR and may support it, which is fine, the trouble is however they are made up of so many people and different groups (about 650) that they will not share the same views and thus there is no clear message. They will also not share the same methods and if they act in the name of XR and do something awful, what is the recourse? The damage to the reputation of all is done and the public support will be lost for all 650 groups. Indeed the recent “Coronovirus is the Cure” posters someone claiming to be XR put up has done exactly this.
If you don’t know the story then these posters appeared from what was claimed to be an unused Twitter account and was done by “white supremacists” who do not represent XR (how that represents white supremacy I’m still not sure). I think it is fair to say they don’t represent most of XR but they felt that they did. I checked and the account was in regular use, tweeting XR related things for a long time and was not disused as XR claimed. Ultimately though it highlights the issue, if you can’t control who is in your group (which is the point of XR, mass civil disobedience) then how can you call for consistent things and be taken seriously as a group?
98% of XR are probably just people that want action on climate change. But if you have an uncontrolled minority that divide and irritate the public it makes no difference what the majority does. Especially if there is no single communication message. However, if we go back to Roger Hallam, maybe this is the point? Disruption and the breakdown of the system through disagreement and general anarchy. I could almost accept it, but it feels like XR are either in disarray themselves or treating protestors as pawns in a bigger game. Like a pyramid scheme where you join to support the environment but find out in the end you are overthrowing the world’s governments. It’s very hard to simultaneously call for better legislation, “going beyond politics”, topple the government and form your own political party (which is something Roger Hallam has also done). Seems a mixed message.
For these reasons activism in the environmental sector never seems to work. Change will not come about through alienation, discrimination and disruption (in my humble opinion). All across the board we are being urged to collaborate, problem solve and work together to actually solve the problems and not just tell people about the problems. There is a place for activism but it needs to be intelligent, considerate and less antagonistic if the aim is public support. Setting out to be arrested, causing public disruption, and demanding change is not likely to win you friends in government or the general population. Speaking rationally with real science just might, look at Greta for example, she has met more world leaders than most world leaders have. She is an activist with widespread support for her actions and manner. It doesn’t matter if you like her or her message, her delivery earns respect.
Activism may have a just cause, but it needs to be smarter, more organised and far more clear what the aim is.