Extinction Rebellion: the new millenarian cult

There is something spooky about these bourgeois rioters.

Austin Williams

Topics Politics UK

Over the past week, large groups of protesters have brought traffic to a standstill in central London. They have glued themselves to bus stops, pavements and Jeremy Corbyn’s fence. They have stood on top of trains, barricaded bridges, painted slogans on corporate headquarters and planted trees in the streets. Meanwhile, politicians have remained on holiday or cowered in Westminster. The police appear to have no idea what to do when confronted by a mass of people who don’t care if they are arrested. This is Extinction Rebellion (XR) – a new environmental protest movement that is spreading across the country.

I’d argue that three things have influenced the rise of this movement. The first is Brexit. Indeed, the politics of anger, disillusion and frustration unleashed by Brexit are possibly the most significant. There are no statistics on the Leave / Remain make-up of the environmental protesters, but one suspects Remain is overrepresented. That said, to her credit, Dr Gail Bradbrook, self-styled co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, told the Today programme that similar disruptive tactics would be ‘perfectly reasonable’ from Brexiteers ‘if democracy is not being honoured’.

The XR protesters – as Jon Snow might say – are mostly white, middle-class and often elderly. They are demonstrating their frustration that environmentalism isn’t getting enough coverage in the press and that, as XR puts it, ‘conventional approaches of voting, lobbying, petitions and protest have failed because powerful political and economic interests prevent change’. The first claim might seem to fly in the face of reality for the rest of us, who see climate campaigns, global-warming paranoia and environmental journalism at every turn. But the second point is the most contentious.

The conclusion drawn by XR activists is that democratic change is impossible and disruption is the only way to force change. Rather than pledging to improve the democratic process, to hold people more firmly to account, they are campaigning to work around it. It is the democratic process that they seek to overturn, not capitalism. Forget the old-fashioned arrogance of the Occupy movement’s slogan, ‘We are the 99 per cent’. Forget the stubborn Remainers’ assertion that 48 per cent takes precedence over the 52 per cent. XR types say that they only need ‘the involvement of 3.5 per cent of the population to succeed’.

Revolutions, it is true, often begin as a minority vanguard interest, but these people are no revolutionaries. If they were actually seeking meaningful change, then we might expect them to campaign for Brexit, for example. XR campaigners are no radical opponents of the state, and seem to enjoy a rather cosy working relationship with the authorities. Environment secretary Michael Gove has thanked the campaigners, saying ‘we’ve got the message’. London mayor Sadiq Khan has pleaded with the protesters to ‘work with us – the police, TFL – to ensure your safety’.

Some might try to make comparisons between XR and the gilets jaunes. Admittedly, one unofficial gilets jaunes environmental manifesto calls to ban plastic bottles and GM crops, but these minor points are overshadowed by the movement’s progressive demand to reindustrialise. Most importantly, they want to confront the authorities in France, and many of them want to leave the EU and exit NATO. The gilets jaunes are a radical, anti-state, politically progressive movement – even though they are relatively small in number. Their aims mark them out as qualitatively different to XR, which is a loose affiliate of people protesting against new runways, anti-fracking campaigners, anti-car / pro-cycling people, and various vocal opponents of the oil industry and growth.

At a time when democracy is under threat, XR has emerged to play the reprehensible role of a happy-clappy, eco version of Gina Miller, by deflecting attention from Brexit on to something, anything, else. As one anti-Brexit campaigner puts it, ‘Why fight Brexit when the world is literally ending?’.

If you really believe that we are about to become extinct, then all bets are off, I guess. Appearing on Good Morning Britain this week, fighting back the tears, Dr Bradbrook said: ‘I have two boys, 10 and 13, and they won’t have enough food to eat in a few years.’ Is there any rationale for that idiotic claim? Has she lost her job? Has global food production closed down? Or is she simply offering an ecological version of Project Fear?

Shouting ‘The end of the world is nigh’ used to be the preserve of eccentric elderly doomsayers with sandwich-boards. Cue David Attenborough. But it is depressing that so many young people have accepted this baseless assertion.

The second important factor is the elevation of children in the environmentalist movement. As Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg becomes more god-like (she was recently blessed by the pope) so children’s authority on the environment issue has risen. This elevated status has enabled children to dictate the terms of debate, with adults often taking their lead from youngsters who have grown up immersed in environmental politics. Thunberg instructs us to stop talking about Brexit and focus on climate breakdown. We must obey.

Increasingly, those who should know better are awed by childish naiveté. Ed Miliband attended the environmental school strike with his son, while the mayor of Sheffield is reported to have said, ‘It’s as simple as action or extinction… [These students] are literally saving our bloody planet.’ Children flouting the rules and, in return, having their transgressions ignored by the authorities, sets a precedent for yet more moral nihilism.

XR’s Roger Hallam, a PhD student researching political activism, has been criss-crossing the country asking people to sign up to being arrested. He has not yet drummed up a schoolyard army, but he is getting a wide range of adults to sacrifice themselves for the ‘future generation’.

There are grandparents (and also younger adults) who – in increasing numbers – have volunteered to be arrested. Hallam cynically wants to use their incarceration as a tool to get publicity. But the people he has signed up often say that they have nothing to lose (due to age), or that they think their liberty is unimportant. On the one hand, this sacrificial gesture by older generations is a nice rebuttal to frequent anti-elderly comments by Remainers. That said, their renunciation of their liberty is shocking.

The cultish nature of XR’s activities is a little spooky. Staged environmental die-ins, for example, are all too reminiscent of Jonestown-style nightmare scenarios described by Shiva Naipaul as being ‘obsessed with sin and images of apocalyptic destruction… instinctively thinking in terms of the saved and the damned’.

We seem to have a perfect storm of democratic accountability breaking down at the same time that a voluntary denial of personal freedom has become acceptable. As the issue of individual liberty becomes little more than an irrelevance to this movement, who knows what anti-social expressions will follow.

The final factor is the police. The breakdown in law and order and the dereliction of authority by the police in 2011 saw the streets given over to major riots and looting in north London. The police absented themselves as youngsters with grievances rampaged through the streets of Tottenham and Wood Green, damaging vehicles and ransacking shops. It spread across London. And for 36 hours criminality seemed untouchable. One rioter claimed, ‘We’re showing the rich people we can do what we want’.

The middle classes were terrified, of course. But, in these XR protests, a more jovial version of rioting has been invented, in which rioters have been redefined as protesters or campaigners. Activists are casually spraypainting buildings with impunity, disrupting traffic and undermining the workings of businesses. The police are displaying the same timidity that they did back in Tottenham, watching while protesters run amok. (This must come as a shock to militant activists who remember the days when you could be arrested and beaten up for an ‘unlawful assembly’ of 12 or more people on the street.)

The Guardian can now gleefully describe Marble Arch, Waterloo Bridge, Parliament Square and Oxford Circus as ‘under the control of protesters’. Actress, ‘environmental activist’ and national treasure Emma Thompson has called for international rebellion (and ‘a lot of fun’). Former archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams has confessed our sins of loving ‘progress more than the planet’. And George Monbiot, of course, has advocated that we ‘overthrow our life-denying system’. Welcome to the London riots for the bourgeoisie.

While the rest of the country engages in a serious Brexit row about how we salvage democracy and reinvigorate a new kind of politics, XR and its hangers-on consider this a distraction from the real emergency of climate change. Anything, it seems, is legitimate to counter it.

Over the past couple of years, a large percentage of the country has rejected demands for citizens’ juries to resolve Brexit, because there is a justifiable suspicion that the questions the jurors would get to consider would be loaded. Undeterred, XR demands the formation of citizens’ juries to discuss, debate and resolve the alleged climate emergency. But for XR, the climate debate is over. These would be less citizens’ juries and more Diplock courts.

While the activists of Extinction Rebellion recognise that the current ‘social contract’ has been broken, they fail to see that it is people like them who helped break it.

Austin Williams is director of the Future Cities Project. Follow him on Twitter: @Future_Cities

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics UK


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